“My daughter is home, she’s sick, I’m sick,” says Terry, 39, who lives near Los Angeles. “If I’m not working, I’m not eating. I medicate myself and stay up all night catching up. It’s one big mess.”
A new round of viral infections – flu, RSV, Covid-19 and the common cold – is colliding with staffing shortages in schools and day care centres, creating unprecedented challenges for parents and teachers. According to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 100,000 Americans missed work last month due to childcare issues, a record even greater than during the height of the pandemic.
Caring for elderly parents, sick spouses keeps millions of people out of work
Those absences ripple through the economy, straining families and businesses just as many thought they had turned the corner.
“We have sick kids while we have childcare crises — you put the two together and there’s just no wiggle room,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG. “People fall between two stools. It means missed paychecks, home disruptions and staff shortages that undermine productivity growth and increase costs at a time when we are already worried about those things.”
Nearly three years after the coronavirus outbreak, families, businesses and healthcare institutions say they are under pressure again. Children’s hospitals across the country are at capacity, largely due to RSV and other respiratory viruses. Workplaces report unfulfilled shifts and lost revenue as employees call for extended periods of time. And parents are once again in an impossible position, balancing sick children, school closures and workplace demands.
There are signs that that pressure is taking a toll on the economy. Employee productivity — a measure of goods and services a worker can produce in an hour — the sharpest decline on record in the first half of this year, according to federal data.
“Having that many employees unexpectedly is a silent drag on productivity,” says Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo. “Childcare has always been a drag for working parents, but the inconsistent childcare issues we’ve seen lately – your child is sick or in quarantine, or the daycare is closed – makes it really hard for working parents to weave back in the labor force.”
American workers have become much less productive. Nobody knows for sure why.
The country’s childcare system is still reeling from the departure of thousands of educators and staff who left for better paying work during the pandemic. While the overall labor market has more than made up for the losses of early 2020, the childcare sector remains a major exception. Public schools are still short of nearly 300,000 workers, while day care centers have 88,000 fewer workers than before the pandemic.
“We still haven’t addressed some of the biggest issues from the beginning of the pandemic, especially when it comes to childcare,” said Elizabeth Palley, a professor at Adelphi University who focuses on education, health and childcare policy. “The average child care worker is paid less than $12 an hour, which means you can earn more by working at McDonald’s. Many people have left the industry and no new ones are joining.”
Amid a teacher shortage, some states are lowering job requirements
This deficiency leads to an increased burden on the teachers who remain. In interviews, many teachers said they felt they had little choice but to continue working while sick. Dozens of schools — including in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee — have gone so far as to cancel classes in recent days because so many students and teachers have been sick.
Kathryn Vaughn, an art teacher in Covington, Tennessee, works at a rural elementary school so understaffed that she continues to teach — wearing a mask — even with RSV and walking pneumonia. About 15 percent of the school’s teachers are sick on any given day, with RSV, covid or the flu, she said. Replacement teachers – who are paid $65 a day – are increasingly difficult to find. That means more classes are being merged and support staff, including secretaries, are replacing teachers. Five nearby school districts, she said, have recently closed for days at a time due to illness and staff shortages.
“It feels like we’ve made absolutely no progress,” said 42-year-old Vaughn. “We don’t have enough teachers. Access to health care is still a problem – many students here do not have a pediatrician they see on a regular basis. Hospitals across the state are closing their doors.”
Infectious disease specialists say a confluence of factors, including a weakened immune system from Covid-19, could be contributing to the recent spike in viral illnesses. It is also possible that “pandemic babies” who were protected from respiratory pathogens due to social distancing and other preventive measures are now falling ill. And while many schools encouraged or even mandated masks last fall, that’s no longer the case, making it easier for several viruses to spread.
In Lincoln, Neb., Lindsey Dick had just started a new job as a case manager for a human resources company in mid-October when her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with RSV. cock, 37, had no paid leave yet, so she took a day of unpaid leave. Her husband babysat their son for the rest of the week while he did his tech support job from home.
“It was just quite a lot for all of us,” she said. “I could only miss one day and even that felt stressful.”
Low-income families – especially those less likely to have paid sick leave and employer-provided health insurance – have been disproportionately affected. While 96 percent of the nation’s highest-paid workers took paid sick leave last year, only 40 percent of the lowest-paid did so, according to federal data.
For low-income parents, no childcare often means no pay
In Sevier County, Tennessee, neither Drew Moore nor his wife Raven get paid leave. Their children, ages 2 and 4, have been sick for weeks, meaning they’ve both had to cut back on their work, which has reduced their annual household income by about $30,000. Moore said he missed out on thousands of dollars worth of landscaping projects this fall, while his wife lost lucrative weekend shifts at the steakhouse where she works.
The timing is particularly bad: Business is usually busiest in the fall, when tourists flood the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Moore said. Recently he had to leave a two-day job cleaning a koi fish pond, which would have brought in about $1,000, his biggest job in months.
“Autumn is the time to make money here; it’s what gets us through the rest of the year,” says Moore, 36. “But of course it’s also good if the kids get sick. I’m really afraid it’s going to screw us up financially.”
Back in Los Angeles, Terry, the freelancer who cares for his daughter, estimates he lost at least two weeks’ worth of work due to RSV-related childcare disruptions. He and his wife, who work two jobs as beauticians, have been eating up their savings to make ends meet.
“It has been difficult for all of us,” he said. “We thought everything would finally go back to normal, but it’s just one snowball after another.”