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Hundreds of child care centers close down amid the coronavirus outbreak

The Community Day Center for Children in Seattle's Central District is one of the centers that's temporarily closed because of employee concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.
Photo courtesy of the Community Day Center for Children
The Community Day Center for Children in Seattle's Central District is one of the centers that's temporarily closed because of employee concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Gov. Jay Inslee has emphasized the need for child care to enable parents in medical or first-responder professions to continue to work. He’s designated child care workers as essential to critical infrastructure.

But advocacy groups say child care centers are in crisis and the government needs to step up to help them in this difficult time. Sen. Patty Murray said she secured $3.5 billion for child care in the current version of the Senate’s coronavirus relief package, including about $58 million for Washington.   

Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit child care resource and referral organization, said that more than 650 child care centers have shut down since the outbreak began. That represents about 12 percent of child care programs in the state and has resulted in the elimination of slots for about 33,000 children.

Lois Martin, director of the Community Day Center for Children in Seattle’s Central District, said she decided to temporarily close after hearing from vulnerable employees who were worried about getting sick. For now, Martin said her customers are continuing to pay tuition, allowing her to continue to pay her workers.  

“Although my parents have been very generous, no one can go on paying for service they’re not able to access indefinitely,” she said.  

Union-represented grocery employees have been able to negotiate hazard pay to compensate for their additional risk. Martin said child care workers also deserve hazard pay, but it needs to come from the government because parents can't afford to pay more and child care centers already operate on thin margins.

Ryan Pricco is director of policy and advocacy for Child Care Aware of Washington. Child care is one of the lowest-paying professions, he said, and workers earn less than pet groomers or parking lot attendants.

“Another thing that can be provided to child care providers that would really remedy the situation is just access to health care,” Pricco said. “Almost all of them don’t have health benefits.”

And while some families are working from home and don’t need outside care, medical workers and first responders are in greater need of child care because the state has closed public and private K-12 schools.

The Washington State Nurses Association, a professional trade organization that also represents nurses in collective bargaining, recently surveyed members and found that 26 percent need child care right now and another 25 percent “possibly” need care.

Inslee asked school districts to help set up a system of free child care for health care workers and first responders. School districts, including Seattle and Tacoma, have partnered with community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club to provide that service.

“Across Washington state and the country, workers in our grocery stores, our hospitals, and our pharmacies who are keeping our communities safe desperately need child care,” Sen. Murray said in a statement. “I’m glad we were able to secure much-needed resources and relief for child care centers in the current package, and I hope we can get it across the finish line soon, but it is just one part of a larger solution.”

She said the $3.5 billion would go toward funding the Child Care and Development Block Grant program to provide child care assistance to families and continued wages for child care providers and staff.

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.