Measuring the toll of a broken child care system

Almost half the workforce can't leave the house with kids at home and few feasible options

Maya Ewings renews her contract as a doula for Open Arms Perinatal Services, while her husband, Caleb, plays with their boys Eli, 3, and Alexzander, 11 months, in the home they share with Maya’s mother in Tacoma, Washington, on Nov. 12, 2021. Caleb is not typically home from work on a weekday, so Maya is squeezing in some paid work while she can. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

It’s hard to get an economy moving again when almost half of your potential workers can’t leave the house. 

That’s basically what it means when unemployed and underemployed people can’t take jobs because they care for their kids at home — either because there is no child care available or because the child care costs nearly as much as or more than what the job would bring in. 

In Washington state, about half of unemployed women and about 40% of unemployed men told survey takers that in the year before April 2020, child care issues were a barrier to even seeking work. And that was largely the situation before the pandemic, during which many child care centers had to shut their doors or reduce the number of children they could handle. 

Maya Ewings is the busy mom of two active boys, the younger almost a year old, and his brother barely 3. At 30, Ewings has a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, which includes sociology, psychology and family studies. Her life calls on all those disciplines — but not in a full-time job in her field. 

She attends a few births per month as a doula, facilitates a support group for moms of color and braids hair. She also volunteers as a mentor for girls and as a parent ambassador to advocate for early learning with the Washington State Association of Head Start and ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program). She does all of this without any professional child care, while her husband works full-time in a group home for foster teens and tries to build a photography business on the side. 


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Ewings, her husband and kids live with her recently retired mother, in her mom’s townhome in the Manitou neighborhood of south Tacoma. The neighborhood feels safe and relatively quiet, with a mix of families and retired folks. But the 1,100-square-foot house is small for five people: Maya, her husband and the toddler share one bedroom, while her mom shares the other with the baby. When Maya needs to focus on paid work, her mom, in her 70s, cares for the boys — help that is essential, as it is for many Washington families, but far from perfect. With both boys now walking and running, it’s more of a challenge than ever. 

Kayla Escobedo holds her 1-year-old daughter, Annaleise, at their home in Montesano, Washington, before taking her to daycare and driving to work in Elma, Washington, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Kayla works a full-time shift, starting at 7:30 a.m., as a scheduler at Summit Pacific Medical Center. Her husband works long days as a carpenter, driving as far as Seattle or Vancouver, to job sites. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

Kayla Escobedo holds her 1-year-old daughter, Annaleise, at their home in Montesano, Washington, before taking her to daycare and driving to work in Elma, Washington, on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Kayla works a full-time shift, starting at 7:30 a.m., as a scheduler at Summit Pacific Medical Center. Her husband works long days as a carpenter, driving as far as Seattle or Vancouver, to job sites. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

When her first son was a baby, Ewings had two jobs, as a full-time family support specialist with an ECEAP program and as a part-time teacher in a child care center in Tacoma. She and her husband earned too much to qualify for child care subsidies but not enough to be able to pay full price; she worked the child care job to get a discount for the baby. 

But she felt as though she was working to pay for child care, spending little time with her son, and still not getting ahead. So, she quit her two jobs and started caring for her son and the kids of two friends, who needed more affordable child care at irregular hours. 

A few years and another son later, Ewings would like to find a more stable job — in nonprofit management, for example — but she has done the math. It would bump them up above eligibility for child care subsidies and other safety-net programs. She would still be working to pay for child care. And she would have the stress of juggling the job, family time and the need to find good, affordable child care nearby. 

“It feels impossible,” she said.

Ewings wants to make more money and be able to start the master’s program in marriage and family counseling into which she was accepted. But, she said, “The way things are, it’s not set up for an average person’s success. I could be doing more; I could achieve my dreams.”  

The lack of access to affordable, quality child care causes a bottleneck in achieving Ewings’ dreams and securing her family’s future, and it’s the same for the Washington state economy and broader society. Parents keep switching lanes and looking for new routes. The gridlock sidelines potential workers and frustrates employers. Around the state, people doing innovative work to resolve the crisis say a solution will require more attention and funding — help that can’t come soon enough. 

Escobedo loads her daughter into their vehicle after picking her up from daycare in Elma on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Back in Montesano, her sister is taking care of Escobedo’s kindergarten-age son between the time when school lets out and Escobedo returns. Both kids have been on a waitlist for care in Montesano for several years. The after-school care provider for her son would manage transportation between school and child care, if he ever gets off the waitlist. At present, the daily coordination of school pickups and dropffs is sometimes chaotic and stressful for Aiden. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

Escobedo loads her daughter into their vehicle after picking her up from daycare in Elma on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. Back in Montesano, her sister is taking care of Escobedo’s kindergarten-age son between the time when school lets out and Escobedo returns. Both kids have been on a waitlist for care in Montesano for several years. The after-school care provider for her son would manage transportation between school and child care, if he ever gets off the waitlist. At present, the daily coordination of school pickups and dropffs is sometimes chaotic and stressful for Aiden. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

Improving child care so parents can work

Just two counties west of Pierce County, where the Ewings family lives, rural Grays Harbor County is home to an active port, with four deep-water terminals and the top-ranking seafood landing port in the state. The county also has a strong tourism industry driven by beach communities, such as Ocean Shores and the Quinault Beach Resort & Casino. Retail and service jobs now far surpass those in timber and wood-product manufacturing, which once dominated the local economy. 

But as Josh Martin, CEO of Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma, pointed out, Grays Harbor is also one of the least healthy counties in the state. One in five children lives in poverty, one of the highest rates in Washington. The county fares poorly on income and other health indicators. 

Like many counties in Washington, it has serious problems with affordable child care for parents who want to find paid work. 

In a recent survey of Grays Harbor parents, almost 60% said child care prices are unaffordable for their families. “I no longer qualify for subsidized child care. As a result, I cannot afford to send my children to day care,” one parent told survey takers from a regional task force, “and it’s far too costly to do drop-in care.” 

Amy Anderson, government affairs director at  the Association of Washington Business, said she hears from more and more employers that the lack of child care is contributing to severe workforce shortages, particularly in Grays Harbor. 

In the past three years, the number of licensed child care slots there dropped from 1,289 to 995, according to Child Care Aware of Washington, a nonprofit child care resource and referral agency. 

Lynnette Buffington, CEO of the chamber of commerce and economic development council of Grays Harbor, never expected that child care would be one of her focuses when she took the job in 2020. But she says it has to be, given how access to child care affects the local economy. 

In that same task force project, done in Grays Harbor and two adjacent counties, almost all employers reported that child care was a problem for their workers. More than half of them ranked the availability of child care as “poor” or “very poor.” And more than half of employed Grays Harbor parents said they rely on networks of families and friends to take care of kids, an essential but often unpredictable arrangement. 

Kayla Escobedo works full-time as a scheduler at Summit Pacific, while her husband works long days as a carpenter in places from Seattle to Vancouver, Wash. In the mornings, she drops her son, Aiden, off with family members who then take him to and from kindergarten in Montesanto. Escobedo then drives to work in Elma where her 16-month-old daughter, Annaleise, goes to Learning to Grow. For her son, that hand-off can be chaotic and stressful. She has had both kids on a waitlist for care in Montesano for several years, wanting them to be closer to other family members and in care with kids who will eventually be their elementary school classmates. The after-school care provider in Montesano will manage transportation between school and care – if her son ever makes it to the top of the list. Escobedo’s sister took care of each child until they turned 1, because she was unable to find infant care anywhere nearby, even though she put her daughter’s name on a waitlist as soon as Escobedo knew she was pregnant. Escobedo felt lucky to get Aiden into Learning to Grow in Elma as soon as his first birthday – she called it good timing. And then it was easy to get Annaleise a slot there as a younger sibling.

Kayla Escobedo works full-time as a scheduler at Summit Pacific, while her husband works long days as a carpenter in places from Seattle to Vancouver, Wash. In the mornings, she drops her son, Aiden, off with family members who then take him to and from kindergarten in Montesanto. Escobedo then drives to work in Elma where her 16-month-old daughter, Annaleise, goes to Learning to Grow. For her son, that hand-off can be chaotic and stressful. She has had both kids on a waitlist for care in Montesano for several years, wanting them to be closer to other family members and in care with kids who will eventually be their elementary school classmates. The after-school care provider in Montesano will manage transportation between school and care – if her son ever makes it to the top of the list. Escobedo’s sister took care of each child until they turned 1, because she was unable to find infant care anywhere nearby, even though she put her daughter’s name on a waitlist as soon as Escobedo knew she was pregnant. Escobedo felt lucky to get Aiden into Learning to Grow in Elma as soon as his first birthday – she called it good timing. And then it was easy to get Annaleise a slot there as a younger sibling.

Buffington said the issues need emergency attention and triage. Employers tell her that their workers “deny themselves economic and professional growth” because the changes in work schedules resulting from a promotion could disrupt whatever fragile care arrangements they’ve made. A promotion can also mean just enough of a pay increase to make a family ineligible for certain public safety-net programs, including child care. 

Child care also becomes a problem for recruiters, she said. And a workable child care system entails more than 9-to-5 weekday care for young children. After-school care, late-night and weekend care, and care arrangements during holidays and summer breaks all must be figured in. One Grays Harbor survey respondent wrote that in their family, the inability to find a way to get kids from school to after-school care was a primary barrier in keeping the parents from working full-time.

Statewide, about 1 in 4 families need care outside of traditional hours. Service jobs that put a premium on employees who can work evenings, weekends and on short notice are a real barrier to child care. In Washington, the problem is more acute among low-income parents of young children; more than half of them work some nonstandard hours. 

But delivering care during those hours is a challenge for child care providers with tiny profit margins. It’s another painful way in which the child care economic system isn’t working.

In Grays Harbor, retail and service jobs now far surpass those in timber and wood-product manufacturing, which once dominated the local economy. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

In Grays Harbor, retail and service jobs now far surpass those in timber and wood-product manufacturing, which once dominated the local economy. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

Employers search for ways to help

The medical center in Elma and a state prison in Aberdeen, two of the largest employers in Grays Harbor County, are particularly hard hit by inadequate child care services, because so many of their staff members must do their work in person, rather than remotely. 

At Aberdeen’s Stafford Creek Corrections Center, human resources consultant Rhonda Schwerdel said the high costs and low availability of child care have hurt recruitment and retention at the 500-employee facility. 

This is especially true for “custody” staff. Guards and workers with similar responsibilities can’t take advantage of flexible work schedules or teleworking. Nor can they bring their babies to work. Custody jobs run on three shifts, 24 hours, every day, so those workers need child care at all hours of the day, on weekends and holidays. Schwerdel said couples who both work at the prison will choose not to work the same shift in order to get around the lack of available child care. And many Stafford Creek workers, including Schwerdel, rely on family, friends and neighbors to fill in gaps in care.

The prison must keep a certain number of custody staff on each shift to provide security and supervision. If a staff shortage develops at any point, managers call on employees to work mandatory overtime, a process governed by a collective bargaining agreement. 

Not surprisingly, that wreaks havoc on carefully cobbled-together child care plans. And it can take physical and mental tolls on staff already working in a stressful environment. 

Summit Pacific Medical Center’s Martin sees child care as an economic driver. The hospital plans to expand its services, and thus its staff, by at least 30% in the coming years, he said, making it critically important to increase child care capacity in the county. 

The hospital already provides a flexible spending account for child care, and administrators work with staff whenever possible to restructure shifts or allow remote options. But that’s feasible for only a small number of its 375 employees. 

“Summit Pacific has lost employees due to a lack of child care and has even had candidates turn down job offers” for the same reason, Martin said. 

The challenge for hospitals is especially acute in rural communities. Like child care centers, hospitals have patient-to-staff ratios to ensure safety and quality care. When there are not enough staff or beds to care for patients, the hospitals go on “divert” status, sending ambulances elsewhere. That means patients who need critical care must wait longer and end up farther from loved ones. It also means that, for the length of the ride to and from a more distant hospital, an ambulance is unavailable to answer calls back in Elma.

Martin said an employee survey conducted several years ago demonstrated the need for child care closer to Elma. So the hospital lobbied and collaborated with local partners to bring in a new child care business across the street, with capacity for about 120 kids on a full-time basis. With land and site preparation donated by a church, a grant from the state and a private loan, Learning to Grow hopes to open the site in the fall of 2022. 

Employers have a range of tools to help workers with child care needs, from flexible scheduling to spending accounts that allow employees to set aside pretax dollars for child care. Flexible scheduling is one of the easiest solutions for some worksites and some jobs. In fact, nearly half of the surveyed employers in Grays Harbor and nearby counties do this. 

Company and state policies on paid leave can help, especially with newborns. Schwerdel said 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave has been a big help to the prison staff. She sees families with the new mom taking 12 weeks first, then the dad taking 12 weeks. That gets them through nearly the first six months of a new baby’s life, with time to both bond and establish a child care routine. 

Companies as diverse as local fast-food chain Dick’s Drive-In and Facebook offer employees financial assistance to directly pay for child care. But parents cannot pay for something that doesn’t exist. 

A USPS mail carrier delivers mail in a residential neighborhood in Aberdeen on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

A USPS mail carrier delivers mail in a residential neighborhood in Aberdeen on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. (Mike Kane/InvestigateWest)

The widening circle of effects 

This high price of child care, for many families, comes when their income is at its lowest. The resulting years long financial bind leads to a need for other public safety-net support.  And the impacts of not being able to provide good care roll on through years, generations and communities.

Ewings and her two kids rely, somewhat reluctantly, on insurance through Apple Health (Medicaid) and support from food stamps. Her husband has health insurance through Veterans Affairs. For a brief period, the Ewings’ older son was enrolled in Early Head Start (federally provided developmental care), until that program closed by COVID-19. 

But when asked what is the one thing that would help her most, Ewings said affordable housing. Even if she were doing full-time paid work, the family still wouldn’t be able to move out of her mom’s house. Rent and the price of infant care are about the same, said Ewings. “So, you are choosing between a roof over your head and having your children somewhere so you can work.” 

When parents can’t afford quality care, kids miss out on the skills that prepare them to do well in school. Just 52% of Washington kids enter kindergarten meeting readiness scores in all six domains of development: social-emotional, physical, language, cognitive, literacy and mathematics. In the Aberdeen School District, that figure is 37.5%, and in Elma, it is 40%. Across the state, significantly lower shares of students from low-income families and from Native American, Black, Latino and Pacific Islander families are ready for kindergarten. 

High-quality preschool, with trained early childhood educators, prepares kids for success in school and helps narrow racial, ethnic and income disparities. Kids who had access to quality preschool have a better chance of graduating from high school and going to college. The research overwhelmingly suggests that investing early pays off later.

Maya Ewings and her mom, Verda Washington, watch as the boys play on Nov. 12, 2021. Washington not only shares her home with her daughter’s family but also frequently helps with child care, so that Ewings can do paid and volunteer work. If Ewings were to find a full-time job, she said, the family wouldn’t qualify for child care subsidies and her mom can’t keep up with two active boys all day, every day. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

Maya Ewings and her mom, Verda Washington, watch as the boys play on Nov. 12, 2021. Washington not only shares her home with her daughter’s family but also frequently helps with child care, so that Ewings can do paid and volunteer work. If Ewings were to find a full-time job, she said, the family wouldn’t qualify for child care subsidies and her mom can’t keep up with two active boys all day, every day. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

Finding and funding solutions

The Washington State Department of Commerce has funded many collaborative child care assessment and planning projects around the state in recent years. These projects, such as the child care task force in Grays Harbor, Mason and Thurston counties, assess the unique challenges in their regions.

Community leaders in those counties got together with parents, employers and providers to develop a long list of action strategies. For example, counties could find ways to provide technical support to start child care businesses and help existing ones expand. Counties could also provide incentives to convert commercial space into child care facilities. 

Gary Burris, executive director of the Child Care Action Council in Olympia and a leader of the tricounty task force, thinks that the most important strategies for addressing the child care crisis are also “the hardest and the most expensive” — increasing compensation for workers and expanding access for child care subsidies.

The government must play a role here, he said. Burris estimated that the state funds about 25% to 30% of higher-education expenses at state universities. If the state could do the same with child care providers’ expenses, it would reduce the price for parents and subsidize pay for the workforce. “We’d be on the way to having a stable child care industry that could better meet the needs of families, workers and businesses,” he said.

The Association of Washington Business’ Anderson said part of the long-term solution must be an analysis of the actual costs of quality child care, including decent wages and benefits for child care workers. The state is preparing to do that now. 

From there, she said, “we have to figure out how to pay for child care as a public good.” 

Back in Grays Harbor, Buffington is thinking about ways to support child care providers as the entrepreneurs that they are. Including them in small-business development conversations and networks, for instance, could open funding opportunities and pathways to expansion to dedicated providers that don’t have much business training. 

Buffington and others also think the state could reduce the regulatory burden on child care businesses without compromising quality. She said everyone associated with child care knows the business model isn’t working, and yet there seems to be a collective shrug about it. 

John Burbank, the recently retired executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a Washington nonprofit public policy center, suggested one reason for that attitude.“When moms are at home raising children, it has no monetary value, it’s not part of GDP [gross domestic product]. That sense of valuelessness follows a child, moving from a home into the child care market,” he said. “Then you have the historical, cultural and current reality of patriarchy, and the diminution of women’s work, and racial bias.”

Stephanie Smith, owner of the Learning to Grow child care center in Grays Harbor County, said she is happy that the state is beginning to view child care as an investment.

“This is too big and too important of an investment for families and providers to carry by themselves,” she said. 


InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit newsroom producing journalism for the common good. Learn more and sign up to receive alerts about future stories at http://www.invw.org/newsletters/.

About the Authors & Contributors

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Joy Borkholder

Joy Borkholder is a freelance researcher who has focused on labor and health care.