EVERETT — Mariko Perez, a mother of two, always planned to return to work.
After she and her husband had children, however, they found it was nearly impossible. Perez’s salary as a para-educator didn’t cover the cost of child care. Reluctantly, she took a career break, intending to wait until their children — now 7 and 8 — were old enough to start school.
Then the pandemic struck.
“I had to be home with my kids, because of online learning,” Perez said. “I couldn’t even entertain going back to work, because I didn’t have child care and I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
The outlandish cost of child care and its effect on parents is well documented in a series of reports by the state Child Care Collaborative Task Force. According to a report published in 2019, child care issues caused 27% of parents to quit their jobs, leave school or leave a training program.
The most recent report from the task force says the cost of full-time child care for an infant and a child in pre-K can equal up to 35% of a two-parent family’s income. It can reach 150% of a single parent’s income.
“The sheer cost of child care forces an incredible amount of people, particularly women, out of the workforce,” said Ryan Pricco, director of policy and advocacy for Child Care Aware of Washington. “It forces them to either reduce their hours or leave the workforce entirely. That has a domino effect for employers and the economy at large.”
People aren’t rushing back to work. Until more time passes, economists won’t fully understand why, but they know certain issues — like child care — are probably contributing to the labor shortage.
“A lot of parents and caregivers are facing challenges related to the uncertainty,” said Employment Security Department regional economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman. “If my child is exposed to somebody with COVID, what does that mean for me having to stay home from work? In a way, there’s almost more uncertainty now than when we knew we all had to be home back in 2020.”
Many child care centers permanently or temporarily closed, Vance-Sherman said. They’re struggling to hire back workers. Employment at nursing homes and residential care facilities is declining, too.
Many Snohomish County parents, like Perez, said it isn’t just the cost of child care, but the time constraints of children’s remote learning and the unknowns of a pandemic that have prevented them from returning to work. The Daily Herald surveyed and interviewed parents who voiced concerns about whether schools and daycares would close again, or if a spike in cases may prevent them from sending their kids to school.
The schedule changes and uncertainty are causing issues, even for parents who could afford daycare before the pandemic — whether it was from their income or a family member’s willingness to care for their children.
Junelle Kruntjee and her partner, who are Everett foster parents with three children, didn’t struggle with child care until one of their children needed help with remote learning. Kruntjee said she is lucky her job lets her work from home.
She has never left a job due to child care issues, but her partner recently did. Neither could help with remote learning while also working full time. The couple hired someone to help them at home but found it too expensive.
“We made the hard decision to have one of us stay home,” Kruntjee said. “We’re no longer a dual-income household.”
Mara Wiltshire, an Everett mother of two, experienced similar child care struggles. Financially, it made the most sense for Wiltshire and her partner to have one of them stop working. Wiltshire said the level and quality of care she wanted for her children was too expensive, unless it came from a family member. Luckily, her parents were happy to help. Remote education, however — on top of full-time child care — was too much for them.
One of Wiltshire’s children was in first grade when remote learning started. The other was under 6 years old. Wiltshire took a career break and spent nearly a year helping her first-grader. Her parents watched her younger son during school hours.
The school district is now back to in-person learning. Wiltshire is also working again. However, she said her parents are the only reason she could take a job outside of her home.
“I have a partner whose wages cover the cost of our living expenses,” Wiltshire said. “It makes more sense for me to just bow out of the workforce instead. That isn’t my first choice, because I would like to advance my career, but that’s the choice I would have made had my parents not been available and retired.”
Marian Richardson, a Lake Stevens grandparent, recently sold her house in California. She moved in with her son and daughter-in-law to help with child care.
Richardson watches her 8-year-old grandson and a new baby while the couple works full time. Without Richardson, they expected to pay at least $2,000 per month. On top of that, Richardson said, they didn’t know how they could find a non-relative to care for a baby and help the 8-year-old boy with school.
“There was no way,” Richardson said.
This story has been modified to reflect that Mara Wiltshire lives in Everett.
Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.