Caregiving Crisis: There aren't enough workers.
Woeful wages, exposure to unvaccinated kids. I don't blame them but ahhh. So I've been volunteering as a lunch lady. Sloppy Joe. Slop, sloppy Joe.
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Ever since school started, I’ve been living out a teenage fantasy of mine. For the past two Mondays, I’ve volunteered at my son’s elementary school as a lunch lady.
But I’m not scooping out food or making eyes at Sloppy Joe (Slop, Sloppy Joe). It’s more like lunch lady land in COVID times. Kids are eating outside so I’m helping them roll out their towels and yoga mats, ensuring they stay close enough to their class but far enough from their friends and, of course, dousing their hands in sanitizer. And breaking up fights of volatile corn (a phrase I thought to myself this week, which could be a good1 name for a kid metal band, right?)
I’m getting really good (finally) at opening milk cartons because there is a massive labor shortage of careworkers and other workers whose jobs are vital to the functioning of our country’s care and school infrastructure. Bus drivers, aides, you name it. These low-wage, few-benefits jobs have always been hard to fill, but add in exposure to unvaccinated kids (but also vaccine mandates), erratic hours and likely disruptions due to quarantines and it’s easy to see why people are staying away. “Will the Bus Driver Ever Come? Or the Substitute Teacher or Cafeteria Worker?” read a recent New York Times article. It reported Massachusetts is activating the National Guard to help with a bus driver shortage. North Carolina legislators want to give districts federal funds to use as signing bonuses for cafeteria workers. This is shocking but also not.
Parents are being asked to step in. The Camden, NJ, school district is offering parents $1,000 to drive their kids to school. Our school in New Jersey has told us they need more lunch aides because outdoor lunches mean kids are spaced out. And they’re also having trouble filling the spots they needed in the Before Times, let alone new ones. One leader even said that it’s difficult to fill these jobs because would-be workers need public transportation, but our school isn’t serviceable. (This says so much about the low wages and inequity.) They want four parents every day to help cover eight classes in our tiny school. I’m privileged to be a) working from home and b) able to help on lunch breaks.
But the squeeze is severe and felt all over. I know you’re feeling it, too.
Parents and caregivers — already tapped to the brink — are offsetting the shortages. I see my neighbors pacing back and forth with their two-year-old on walks and push-cart rides as they await the 8:30 am open time of their daycare, hours cut short due to staffing. In the afternoon, kids who would otherwise be in aftercare get off the bus while their parents are muted on work calls, because there aren’t enough spots available. Daycares close earlier than normal (one in town closes at 3:30 pm instead of 6). These dominoes cause everyone to scramble, every day. Still, we’re grateful for any coverage we can get.
And hanging over all of our heads is COVID-19 itself. We’ve got outbreaks to worry about and dreaded communications from schools that our too-young-to-be-vaccinated kids have been exposed, sending them home to quarantine and test.
This week, my son’s first grade teacher sent home “Remote Learning Baggies.” I immediately assumed the worst when I saw that as the subject line of an email.
The “just in case” bag of a writing journal, dice, counters and dry erase marker, will sit and wait. We’ll inevitably be using it. The question is when and for how long, and at what cost to all of us.
The toll on caregivers mounts and mounts, as we round out 18 months in the pandemic and too many years in this madness. The conversation about infrastructure, Paid Leave and child tax credits continues gaining steam (and detractors). More on all that below.
As the leaves turn and temperatures cool, I’m trying to take deep breaths and plow ahead but also triage where I can. For these reasons, this newsletter is shifting to a monthly publication schedule. For now. See you next on Oct. 22nd. I wish you all moments of calm amid the chaos and strategic peace where you can get it.
Thanks for being here and welcome if it’s your first issue. Read more about why I started this newsletter. Subscribe below. Have a caregiving story or know someone who does? Please message me for inclusion in a future issue. Hang in there and see you soon.
What To Know About the Caregiving Crisis This Week
NEWS WATCH: ROUNDUP — Keeping tabs on legislation, regulation and conversation:
PAID LEAVE PUSH — This week marked a coordinate National Paid Leave Day of Action to keep getting out the message about the need for equal protection for all workers. (Read last issue’s Q&A with top U.S. paid leave expert Vicki Shabo.) Getting significant attention was an op-ed by Melinda French Gates in Time saying "after decades of groundwork by advocates and activists" the U.S. must "finally" move this year to guarantee paid leave for all. She pointed to high levels of bipartisan support and stressed the universal nature of paid leave for people taking care of new babies, aging parents, sick family members or dealing with their own medical diagnosis.
"Workers want to know that when the inevitable happens, they’ll be able to stay connected to their jobs and maintain some financial security," she wrote, adding it's a powerful move for companies as they seek top talent and limit turnover.
If Congress doesn't act, she said the U.S. will maintain the "dubious distinction of being the only industrialized nation that doesn't guarantee paid leave of any kind." (Editor's note: It truly is shameful.)
Congress update: The Biden administration is holding meetings this week to try to bring Democrats together to pass the Build Back Better agenda in two bills: the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that focuses on traditional infrastructure (aka roads and stuff), and the $3.5 trillion measure that that includes measures for paid leave, greater caregiver infrastructure, etc. CBS reports Biden met with three sets of Democrats (as the broader measure can only pass with their support), but "there was little sign of movement after the meetings." Moderate Democrats say the pricier bill is too pricey, and want it cut before they'll support it. The smaller measure faces a Sept. 27 deadline for passage.
Not all states are created equal. For a look at how the various U.S. states compare in terms of policies and support, check out this report by The Century Foundation. No state achieved a grade of 'A' when factors like like child care/early learning, home and community-based services, paid family/medical leave, working conditions for workers were considered. Top-performing states included California and New York, while Florida, Mississippi and Alabama were among the worst.
Here’s the easiest/best way if you want to do more. Vicki Shabo says the best way to advocate is to contact your representatives in Congress. Paid Leave For All (of which Vicki is an advisory member) makes it so easy. Click here, put in your info and it automatically sends letters to your reps on your behalf.
TREASURY DEPARTMENT: U.S. CHILDCARE SYSTEM “UNWORKABLE” — A new Treasury report timed with the push to secure passage of Biden’s plans says the system is "plagued by market failures that put quality care out of reach for many families." (CNBC) Treasury found a) parents are struggling to pay and b) many industry workers receive low wages, suffer high turnover and face discrimination. The report “Economics of Childcare Supply in the United States” was released during an event with Treasury Sec. and all-around financial goddess Janet Yellen and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“While our existing system leads to chronic underinvestment in our children and hinders many parents’ ability to contribute to our nation’s economy and make a solid living, a well-funded child care sector will help us all achieve more of our economic potential,” the report states.
Some highlights (or lowlights?), as reported by the AP:
An average family with just one child under 5 would need to devote 13% of their income for child care. Perspective: that sum is more than an average family spends on food. The report concludes it's an unaffordable amount.
Child care workers earn an average of $24,230. More than 15% of these workers live below the poverty line in 41 states and half need public assistance.
The sector has high levels of turnover: 26-40% leave their job each year.
Operators have little wiggle room - they tend to operate on profits of 1% or less.
WALL STREET JOURNAL BLASTS, PAID LEAVE, CHILD TAX CREDITS — This isn’t that surprising from the nation’s leading business newspaper, with an editorial department whose conservative views can clash with the news division. Still it’s dismaying to see staff editorials (meaning it is the official position of the publication) so harshly criticizing efforts to help families. First this week, they rail against paid leave, saying middle income families will get too much help. “The dirty secret is that government leave programs end up helping middle-income folks who can live on partial pay,” the WSJ writes.
And then they criticized the expanded child tax credits, saying they’re no longer linked to work (which is bad, per them): “It has kicked free of any connection to income or taxes and is now a full-fledged entitlement.”
Their readers may be cheering this on, but everyone else is like
Gee, WSJ. If only we could see that other countries ARE seeing economic benefits from doing SOMETHING to support families and keep caregivers (mostly women) in the labor force. Bloomberg is out with a great look at efforts (and lack of them) in various countries and how that is either helping or hurting the "economic fiasco" of the childcare crisis. Successes they point to: Australia providing free childcare to families during the worst of the pandemic and Canada passing a massive investment in subsidized child-care that had been in the works for decades. Women are bounding back in those labor forces, which (duh) helps the broader economy.
Seems to me, WSJ, that the U.S. providing up to $300 in monthly payments/tax credits to families and paid family leave is a sound investment if we want to reverse our decades-low female labor force participation rate and lift ALL people up. Is government help such a bad thing?
Bottom line: Gonna let this sassy molasse-y take it.
AND NOW A BUNCH OF HEADLINES ABOUT CRAPPY CHILDCARE WORKER PAY AND WORKER SHORTAGES AT SCHOOLS — It’s a dizzying amount of media coverage these past few weeks as school starts and everyone wonders what the F is going on.
The TLDR: Education Week offers good context. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS if you’re a nerd like me) offers monthly tracking of job openings in public education that’s eye-opening: Over 446,000 jobs in the sector were open in June, and 460,000 in July. About double the figures from the same time last year.
Why? EW sums it up:
“Interviews with economists, administrators, and employees reveal a complex array of factors causing the school hiring headaches: Fears over health and safety, frustrations over longstanding pay gaps and inequities, and political disagreements over masks and vaccines. Some of these shortages are far more severe than usual, while others existed long before the pandemic.”
Get your hairnets and rubber gloves ready. Here’s a look at stories I found while doomscrolling on Google News. (Yes, I do that.) All images hyperlinked to stories.
New York Times:
Bottom line: Parents, guardians and caregivers will do what it takes. We’ve always done it. We pick up the slack where the infrastructure fails us. It’s exhausting and breaking us, but we keep at it. We have no choice. Plans before Congress would offer more money to make these jobs worthwhile for workers. We need to reorient our thinking around the value we place on these vital jobs that truly help ensure a functioning society. Meanwhile, hats off but also gah! to this superintendent in Minnesota who got her license to drive buses. (KARE TV)
"I thought, this is something really small that I could do. So I went and got my bus license to help fix the problem," said Beth Geise, Superintendent of St. Francis Area Schools in Minnesota.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Please send feedback, your favorite lunchlady land memories, and book recommendations now that I finished all 8 of the Bridgerton series (omg) .2 If you found value in Caregiving Crisis, please consider sharing with a friend.
Caregiving Crisis is a newsletter written by Emily Fredrix Goodman. We aim to publish monthly but other things may get in the way.
Volatile Corn would be a-maizing, right? I HAD TO DO IT SO I DID IT IN THE FOOT NOTES YOU CAN’T STOP THE GENIUS.
I felt weird having only one footnote. I guess just wasn’t very footnote-y this issue? So, here’s a bonus one. Let’s welcome fall in the Northern Hemisphere! We are super excited it is fall (finally!) in our house. Here’s my son’s drawing of a pumpkin, now displayed above our doorbell. Yes, he signs his name with a backwards 6 to denote his age. Bless. Viva fall!