Even in the best of times, working parents must strive every day to balance family and professional responsibilities. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made that already difficult situation much, much harder — and women workers have borne the brunt of it.
As the pandemic closes out its second year, many working parents feel “a pretty profound exhaustion,” says Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, who chairs the board’s Early Childhood and Development Committee.
“I know many families who’ve had the experience of their day care closing for two weeks, it reopens for three days and it closes again for two weeks,” she says, adding,“What does this mean in the life of a family?”
Some families have managed to work remotely, taking over the kitchen table or repurposing a guest room as a home office. But that isn’t feasible for workers whose jobs must be performed in person. “Some people have to show up for shift work, regardless of whether day care is open or not,” Beach-Ferrara points out. In the best-case scenario, these workers can turn to family members or friends for child care.
But if that’s not an option, “They have to start making really, really difficult decisions,” she says.
The child care crunch
Even pre-COVID, finding affordable child care in Western North Carolina was a daunting challenge.
“We had, I won’t say a crisis, but we had a really difficult environment,” says Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board and executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council, an association of local governments. “Before the pandemic we already had a lack of available slots” for child care and early childhood education, he explains.
Subsidies for low-income families were limited, notes Ramsey, and “Even for individuals who were paying out of pocket … we just had really limited slots.”
Options include Head Start programs serving low-income families, public prekindergarten programs, nonprofit and for-profit child care centers, home-based child care and private preschool programs. Costs vary based on both the type of program and the child’s age.
In 2019, the average cost of center-based infant care in North Carolina was $9,254 a year, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national nonprofit. For an infant and a 4-year-old, the average combined cost was $17,174.
Buncombe County families that meet certain income requirements are eligible for subsidized child care through the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency provides vouchers for both after-school and full-time care at specified facilities, says Phillip Hardin, the county’s economic services director. But recipients must still contribute 10% of their gross monthly income, which can be a significant burden.
Subsidy requests have held steady during the pandemic, says Hardin. “At times we’ve had an increase for essential workers and especially for school-age care, as many schools weren’t offering full-time, in-person learning,” he reports.
As of January 2022, the most recent data available, 995 Buncombe County families received such subsidies on behalf of 1,297 children, notes Hardin. Most of the recipients (83%) were working, 2% were attending school and 5% were doing both. The remaining support went to foster parents and those caring for special-needs children.
In the past, the county had a waitlist for child care vouchers, but Hardin confirms that this is no longer the case.
Meanwhile, the pain of the pandemic has not been distributed equally. Women workers have been disproportionately affected, leading to what some have called a “shecession.”
As of January 2022, the number of women in the workforce had declined by more than 1 million since February 2020, according to a fact sheet from the National Women’s Law Center. During that period, women have accounted for 63.3% of job losses.
“Women are often the people who step away from work to attend to family needs,” Beach-Ferrara points out. And that can affect long-term career prospects as well as short-term household income.
Even a temporary absence from the workforce, she continues, “has all kinds of impact on earning power and promotions. It’s important that we’re thinking through every aspect of that as we think about targeted ways to support women’s reentry into the workforce.”
During the pandemic, some families have concluded that the most prudent financial decision was for one parent to stay home and care for the kids. Often, however, those decisions reflect pay inequity as well as the high cost of child care.
In 2020, American women earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In North Carolina, the wage gap is even greater. According to a 2018 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women workers in North Carolina were paid just 80.9 cents per dollar male workers earned. And for women of color, the discrepancy is greater still.
On an annual basis, Tar Heel women make almost $9,000 less than men. The 2018 report found that the median annual income for North Carolina women who were working full-time, year-round was $36,400, compared with $45,000 for men.
Thus, any solution to the child care crisis must also address gender-based pay disparities, Beach-Ferrara maintains.
Expanding teacher training opportunities
Increasing the pay for early childhood workers would make the field more attractive, says Ramsey.
“The challenge in our society is we pay the least to those who take care of us when we’re the youngest and when we’re the oldest. A lot of those child care workers could go across the street to a fast-food restaurant and make more money.”
People working in Head Start, publicly funded pre-K programs and private preschools in North Carolina can make as little as $17,490 a year, according to a 2018 report by the state’s Child Care Services Association, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit.
One local program seeking to increase such workers’ pay is the Child Care WAGE$ Project. A program of the Buncombe Partnership for Children, it provides annual supplemental payments to people working in the field who make up to $18 per hour. The program encourages less educated participants to take courses to improve their skill set and earnings potential.
Another helpful approach, notes Beach-Ferrara, would be establishing a local birth-through-kindergarten program that qualifies participants for B-K licensure. Currently, the closest B-K programs are at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee and Appalachian State University in Boone. The lack of such programs here, she explains, makes it harder for local child care providers to recruit enough licensed teachers to staff pre-K classrooms. Both pre-K and kindergarten teachers are required to have such a license, which allows them to work with children from birth to age 5.
In recent years, two local entities have received substantial grants aimed at expanding the early childhood workforce.
In 2019, the Buncombe County Partnership for Children and its partners were awarded a two-year, $400,000 NCWorks Local Innovation grant to extend its existing program for training early childhood educators to Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.
And last September, Land of Sky received a two-year, $802,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Dogwood Health Trust to expand the WNC Early Childhood Educator Workforce Project to 11 counties in the region. It’s expected to create 160 jobs that will support additional child care slots.
Buncombe considers pre-K expansion
Buncombe County’s Strategic Plan 2025 lists improving early childhood education as a goal. The current budget allocates $3.75 million for that purpose.
At the Feb. 15 Board of Commissioners meeting, however, Beach-Ferrara proposed spending an additional $7.5 million on pre-K education over two years, using a portion of the roughly $27 million remaining in federal funds received through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. Her proposal calls for allocating $4.3 million to build and equip new pre-K classrooms and $3.2 million for a pilot program to increase the capacity of existing classrooms.
“There’s a tremendous amount of community and political support and will in Buncombe County” for improving early childhood education, says Beach-Ferrara. “We are trying to do everything we can as a local community to push forward and are ever hopeful that we’ll see state and federal government prioritize these issues.”
The Democrat, who’s currently running for Congress, says that if she’s elected to represent North Carolina’s 11th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, bolstering federal support for early childhood education would be a priority.
Among the helpful steps that could be taken at the national level, she believes, are extending the child tax credit (which expired in December) and forgiving student loans. But despite those measures’ popularity, she says, “They’re getting logjammed in broken parts of our political system.”
Supporting economic growth
A family’s needs for child care and early childhood education are often framed as individual concerns. But the lack of affordable child care and its impacts on the labor force is really an economic development issue, Beach-Ferrara maintains.
“You cannot have a vibrant workforce without having quality early childhood education in your community,” she declares. And if that wasn’t apparent pre-COVID, it certainly is now, says Beach-Ferrara. Over the last two years, local employers “have felt the pressure points of parents needing to call out because day care just closed for 10 days,” she adds.
Ramsey, meanwhile, says “Employers recognize that lack of child care harms their ability to attract and retain staff.”
The National Women’s Law Center also emphasizes the economic benefits of family-friendly policies.
“Investing in child care, universal pre-K and paid leave is an economic imperative that increases women’s labor force participation and labor productivity,” research fellow Brooke LePage stated in a January blog post. “The National Partnership for Women & Families estimates that if women’s labor force participation in the U.S. were to match rates for women in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom — where public policies provide greater support for caregiving — there would be up to 4.85 million more women in the workforce and $650 billion per year added to the economy.”
In the meantime, local families continue to grapple with the lack of viable child care options, including getting the bulk of their work done after their children go to bed. Beach-Ferrara says she knows people “working from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. to get stuff done.”
Despite the challenges, however, she’s not giving up. “The pandemic really has laid bare so many disparities within our country. In that, it gives us the opportunity to redouble our efforts to do better.”