17 days into the second-longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the ripple effects are being felt across the country. Roughly 800,000 federal employees and 2,000 contractors are going without pay, and the consequences don’t end there.
As federal worker Sam Shirazi noted on Twitter, the shutdown has created a child care emergency for some families: “I’m a furloughed Federal employee, but the #GovernmentShutdown doesn’t just affect me. My daughter’s daycare is in the Commerce Dept and is closed during the shutdown, but we still have to pay our weekly invoice.”
Nearly 100 child care centers serving federal employees, along with some civilians, operate across the U.S. The spaces are leased by the General Services Administration, which pays $5.6 billion in rent every year. According to the GSA, nearly 7,500 children receive care each day at such facilities, approximately two thirds of whom are children of federal employees. The facilities run on parent fees; the service is not provided by the government.
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Even more child care centers provide services directly through government agencies, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technologies, which maintains on-site child care for staffers and a limited number of civilians at locations like its Maryland campus. NASA also provides on-site child care to employees.
Federal workers and the civilians who take advantage of these services have come to count on them, and the child care providers who staff them rely on their wages to support their own families. During the shutdown, parents and workers alike are struggling to make ends meet, whether they’re civilians suddenly without child care, federal employees who remain working but have nowhere for their children to go, or child care workers uncertain about their pay status.
In GSA spaces or federal agencies that remain open, child care centers are operating as usual, though some reported declines in attendance, with federal workers keeping their enrolled children home. Others, like Shirazi’s Commerce Kids, are closed, forcing parents to look elsewhere for child care. Some are operating in GSA buildings with skeleton crews, like the Growing Years Child Development Center in Washington, where the GSA personnel who assist with building maintenance and safety concerns have all been furloughed. The precise number of facilities closed is unclear; many weren’t answering phones or responding to messages.
Many administrators are making the decision to pay child care providers who have been affected by involuntary leave in order to retain them, whether they are employees of nonprofits operating with a memorandum of understanding in GSA spaces or staffers at contract companies. abby, a civilian parent in Colorado, says “the teachers are definitely more poor than the parents,” and can ill-afford unpaid leave. Despite their low pay, they are highly-skilled workers who “could all find new jobs” if they chose to start looking.
To keep paying staffers, centers are still collecting fees from parents, even those who are furloughed without pay, though some are offering discounts and tuition assistance. This means some parents are paying twice: Once to the facility their children normally go to, which is currently closed, and again to whoever is filling in the gap during the shutdown.
Cathy Bisaillon, president and CEO of Easterseals Washington, the program provider at Growing Years, comments that nonprofit child cares run on very slim margins, making it hard to waive or reduce tuition fees, even though their office is sympathetic to and concerned about families like those in the Coast Guard who are currently on furlough. Lack of communication from the government is also complicating matters; she expressed concerns about Head Start funding, even though the program is funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, which remains unaffected by the shutdown.
Whether furloughed or ordered to work without pay, federal employees have child care fees to add to long lists of expenses for households that live paycheck to paycheck. And in the case of those working without pay who have children in closed facilities, there’s a scramble to meet child care needs as they report for work. For civilians who have relied on federal child care for their young children, the shutdown is creating uncertainty and frustration as they game out child care arrangements, uncertain about when the shutdown will end.
Child care administrators are sending out bulletins suggesting parents find college students on break or consider paying center staff for in-home care. Parents are frantically seeking spots in other facilities, or working out care arrangements with friends and family on a day-by-day basis. Those with flex time or paid leave are using it, and some are simply taking their children to work with them, for lack of a better option.
NASA engineer Jessica M reported on Twitter that her child care is raising rates to offset the costs of the shutdown. Some parents have child care access but can’t afford it because of the furlough, so they’re pulling their kids out and hoping they don’t lose their spaces in facilities that often have lengthy waiting lists.
According to the Center for American Progress’ Early Childhood team — one of whom is among the DC-area parents struggling to meet child care needs due to a facility closure — “licensed infant and toddler child care is unaffordable for most families.” While child care subsidies are available, only 1 in 6 eligible families are currently receiving them. Washington, DC, which has been hit especially hard by the shutdown, has particularly high child care costs; parents need to spend 21 percent of the area’s median income on center-based care that meets licensing requirements. Maryland and Virginia both have high costs, and a high concentration of federal employees, as well.
The price tag for child care isn’t the only problem, as many parents affected by the shutdown are discovering. There’s also a significant shortage of available spots and providers; among parents who can afford to pay tuition at a shuttered center and pay for other arrangements, some, like abby, are learning that there are no other arrangements available.
In a painful juxtaposition, at the precise moment that parents affected by the shutdown are desperate for childcare, Congress has just opened a state-of-the-art care facility for the children of staffers. Limited child care options, you see, had been driving staffers away from Capitol Hill.