It’s been nearly three decades since Adrienne Briggs first opened an early-childhood education program complete with a science center, a reading corner and a math station on the first floor of her Tudor-style townhouse in North Philadelphia. In mid-March of last year, when 60-year-old Briggs had to close shop because of the coronavirus pandemic, the tenuous nature of the business she spent nearly half her life building began to sink in.
“Quite a few providers have been having this conversation of an exit plan,” said Briggs, who said she nets $25,000 a year from her business. “And realizing that if we had to depend solely on Social Security from what we’ve been making, we would never make it.”
Briggs, who has a master’s degree in early-childhood education, said she isn’t in child care for the money but because she loves the children she cares for, many of whom have grown up and brought their own children back to her program. But since reopening, only four of the six children who frequented her program have come back, she said.
And now that she’s getting close to retirement age, in addition to dealing with a global pandemic that has devastated her field, the uncertainty is beginning to weigh on her. “It’s different than being in a business or a job for two years, and you still have 20-some years ahead of you that you can switch over,” Briggs said.
For home-based workers who don’t have the benefits associated with working for a larger center — and especially for workers getting closer to retirement age — the pandemic has been particularly crushing, experts say.
“Because they have worked in a field where they’ve been so grossly undercompensated forever, they don’t have savings or retirement, and so they’re in a pretty precarious situation that covid has only made worse,” said Natalie Renew, director of Home Grown, a nonprofit focused on home-based child-care centers. “They mostly continue to operate with less revenue, increased expenses and a lot of risk and uncertainty.”
Child-care providers, like Briggs, are overrepresented among individuals living below the poverty line and have a median hourly wage of $10.31 an hour, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), making it challenging to save money. And for providers who run their own businesses out of their homes, the financial uncertainty is even higher, according to Renew. “They’ve been independent sole proprietors, and so they haven’t had access to savings resources, or matches and 401Ks and pensions. Those kinds of tools that, you know, typical workers might have,” she added.
More broadly, the pandemic has been economically devastating for workers in all sectors and age groups in the child-care industry. Roughly 1 in 5 child-care workers, 95 percent of whom are women, had lost their jobs as of August last year, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And according to Home Grown, about 63 percent of child-care providers reported they would need public support if forced to temporarily close.
“There were already cracks in the system that really just became wide open in the pandemic,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at EPI. “There were problems with lower wages and economic insecurity and poverty … that was really just revealed [to be] even stronger in the pandemic.”
Olivia Alvarez, a 63-year-old home-based provider on the South Side of Chicago, wasn’t blind to the issues facing both parents and providers in her industry before the pandemic, but said the pandemic has made the situation significantly worse. Alvarez, who lives in a predominantly Hispanic and lower-income neighborhood, said she never made the kind of money larger centers serving clients on the north end of town do, but she chose to remain in her community because parents there relied on her services. But when factories and restaurants — the primary employers of most of her clients — took massive hits during the pandemic, many people in her neighborhood either no longer needed or could no longer afford child care.
Alvarez has gone from having anywhere from nine to 12 children in her program to just two 4-year-olds — a financial blow of more than $4,000 a month. “I can’t survive on that,” she said. “I have bills to pay. It’s not enough to pay the rent, let alone my salary.”
Because she has limited savings, and hadn’t yet received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan for her small business, Alvarez had to start looking for other work in February. But instead of treating her like a successful business owner and child-care professional, Alvarez said, some potential employers have acted like she’d had a hobby. “They don’t consider it as a full-time job,” Alvarez said. According to Alvarez, a male interviewer recently asked if she’d been a babysitter for the past 17 years.
“I’ve been putting all these years into a full-time job, more than a full-time job,” she said. “A full-time job is 40 hours a week — as child-care providers we work way more hours than that.”
What happened to Alvarez is “devastating” but “not surprising,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, chief executive of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “They’re still dealing with this stigma … that they’re caretakers and that it’s not a skilled job, but there is a startling amount of research that disputes that.”
Older workers also face age-related discrimination and other age-related factors that make it harder for them to find new employment once they’ve lost or left their jobs, especially during economic recessions, said Lori A. Trawinski, director of finance and employment at the AARP Public Policy Institute. An October 2020 report from AARP found that older workers were reporting higher rates of job losses and longer durations of unemployment during the pandemic compared with their younger counterparts.
In addition to the financial strains of the pandemic, older workers also face higher covid-19 health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For providers who operate out of their home with no place to go if one of their clients or their families get sick, the personal risks they’ve taken during the pandemic have been significant. “For older people, it’s essentially a two-sided problem,” Trawinski said. “They’re faced with economic insecurity if they don’t continue to work, but they’re risking their health or even their life in some cases if they do work.”
But home-based providers are “the mainstay” for rural communities, lower-income families and Black and Latino families, according to a report from Home Grown. If something isn’t done to support providers like Alvarez, when people start going back into work, the child-care infrastructure won’t be there to support them, said Allvin.
For 62-year-old Martha Ray, the decision to close her home-based program in Valparaiso, Ind., and retire because of the pandemic weighed heavily on her. “Frankly, it just wore me down physically,” said Ray, who said she was constantly terrified of getting sick and had to spend hours figuring out how to clean without exposing any of the children to toxic chemicals. “We were on the battlefield every day. But we were invisible.”
Unlike many of her peers, Ray said she had the “luxury” to retire — a decision she made in December — because she’d put away money from her earlier, much more lucrative career in technology at IBM. “I will have to rely 100 percent on my savings, so I’m losing that buffer,” said Ray. “But mostly it impacts me emotionally because I view myself as a resource for my community.”
Roughly $3.5 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March 2020 and $39 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act, signed by President Biden last month, have already gone toward rescuing the child-care industry. But Renew said that many home-based providers are still struggling to access support. For example, New York City providers were told that they could use Cares Act funds to make changes to their homes to make them more covid-safe but that the state would reimburse them after the fact instead of giving providers the money up front, according to Renew. “These are people who … need assistance to buy food. So, the idea that they could spend thousands of dollars on renovations and then get reimbursed, like, that design just doesn’t meet the needs of providers,” she said.
Renew added that many home-based providers have also struggled to provide the necessary paperwork to qualify for a PPP loan, which means many have been left out of support programs entirely. To help them, states need to be taking into consideration the specific needs and challenges associated with home-based providers, Renew argued.
For Briggs in Philadelphia, the path toward a sustainable child-care system in which she and other providers like her can make a living after the pandemic is murky.
“I don’t know how we bounce back from this, or when,” Briggs said. “I’m just hopeful we will bounce back, and things will, well, I don’t want to say go back to normal. But kind of go back to what we were used to, without the fear.”
This piece was published in partnership between The Lily and the Fuller Project. Jessica Washington is a reporter with the Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women.