Affordable child care seen as essential to getting parents back to work

Lisa Weighton, Eric Young, and their 14-month-old son Robin in front of their Fairfield residence | Photo: Darren Stone, Times Colonist

When Victoria mom Lisa Weighton finished her maternity leave in May, she took an extra six weeks off work because she couldn’t find daycare for her 14-month-old son Robin. Weighton returned to her communications job in mid-June after she and her husband, Eric Young, a health care worker, enrolled Robin in a West Shore daycare that was providing temporary care for the children of essential workers.

Weighton is on the hunt again for another daycare, because Robin’s daycare spot is only secured until Aug. 31, which is when the B.C. government’s temporary emergency funding for licensed child care centres ends. The province has spent $150 million since April to ensure that parents who took their kids out of daycare because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19 would not lose their spot.

“It’s extremely stressful,” Weighton said.

“I feel very vulnerable, I feel defeated. We were so happy to have found that spot in the first place.”

Weighton knew the spot was temporary but she was willing to take the risk so she could return to work as soon as possible.

“I feel like now I’m back at square one.”

The daycare shortage in B.C. has become even more dire since some child care centres are re-opening at reduced capacity due to COVID-19.

It’s a situation that could force some parents, particularly women, to leave their jobs or opt for part-time hours if they can’t find affordable child care. Economists fear that a reduction in the labour force could hamper economic recovery.

According to Statistics Canada’s June Labour Force Survey, the employment recovery has been “slowest for mothers with school-aged children,” with employment rising 5.2 per cent for women and 6.4 per cent for men with children younger than six. For mothers of children ages six to 17, however, women’s employment remains below pre-pandemic levels, and women with children are more likely to be working less than half their usual hours.

Christina Dicks, co-administrator at Alberni Valley Childcare Society in Port Alberni, said the centre took on new families who needed emergency temporary child care but those families have been notified they will lose their spot when regular clients return after Aug. 31.

Some of the temporary clients include recently graduated licensed nurse practitioners who put their children into daycare so they could return to the health care sector, Dicks said. She worries about whether those parents will be able to find other daycare spots come September.

“So those families are going to be without childcare,” she said. “I’m sure there are other families who don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Adding to the problem is the shortage of early childhood educators, Dicks said, many of whom took a leave from work because they’re worried about increased exposure to COVID-19.

“We’ve lost staff because they didn’t want to work. They were scared, there was a lot of fear.” It’s impossible to physically distance from infants and toddlers, Dicks said, and many educators are frustrated that they haven’t received any hazard pay for their increased exposure. The vast majority of early childhood educators in Canada are women.

“I’ve heard ECEs say ‘We don’t get enough money to work in a pandemic,’ ” Dicks said.

In September, the centre will not have enough staff to operate at full capacity, Dicks said. That will also mean a shortage of backup staff to replace an educator who is sick.

“If [situation] it wasn’t critical before, it’s absolutely dire now,” she said.

Elisabeth Gugl, associate professor of economics at the University of Victoria, said while the number of dual-earner families in Canada has been steadily rising and while the gender pay gap between women and men is gradually closing, gender norms often influence women’s decision to stay home to care for the children. Also, if one of the two parents has to stay home, it’s likely to be the person who makes less, she said.

According to a 2019 Statistics Canada report, women in B.C. earn an average of 20 per cent less an hour than men, which is the largest gender pay gap in Canada.

When Quebec introduced its program of subsidized child care in the 1990s, it resulted in a huge increase in women’s labour force participation, Gugl said. “The availability of child care is often a key determinant as to whether women join the labour force.”

B.C.’s parliamentary secretary for gender issues, Mitzi Dean, said the provincial government is doing everything it can to build up child care capacity so that parents can return to work. “This is a critical issue. This is something we’ve been discussing as part of the [B.C. government’s] restart [plan] but we need to make sure that it isn’t women who are punished more and disproportionately because of this pandemic.”

Dean said she has talked to parents across the region, particularly women, who are struggling to juggle working from home and caring for their children. “You’re literally doing far too many jobs for one person in a 24-hour period,” she said.

The province has earmarked $2 billion over three years for child care, Dean said, “because we know that it’s good for the economy, because we know it helps close the gender pay gap and it actually means that women are more engaged in the workplace and they’re able to take those promotion opportunities.”

Asked about the shortage of early childhood educators and concerns over the lack of hazard pay, Dean said the provincial government has been giving the educators a wage enhancement of $2-an-hour since April. Child care centres receiving the temporary emergency funding are also able to use some of that funding to boost wages, Dean said.

Last week, the federal government announced $19 billion to help the provinces and territories restart their economies and one of the priorities was increasing the number of safe child care spaces so that parents can return to work.

The federal NDP is calling on the government to invest in a universal child care and early learning program. “Affordable child care is essential for restarting the economy, and since care work in families often falls to women, it is particularly essential when it comes to making sure women can return to work,” Victoria NDP MP Laurel Collins said in a statement. “Half our work force is women, and economic recovery is going to be impossible without them. If the government doesn’t invest in child care, families and the economy will continue to struggle.”

Randall Garrison, the NDP MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke urged the government to bring in legislation, similar to the Canada Health Act but for child care, which would ensure families across the country have access to quality, affordable, publicly-funded child care.

Premier John Horgan said last week that the pandemic has had a “disproportionate impact on women, on people of colour, vulnerable populations. That’s why I’m so pleased to see resources available for child care — which is not exclusively a women’s issue — but child care and vulnerable populations in the federal package.”

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said the Ministry of Education has not yet provided full details on the school reopening plan for September, which is creating uncertainty and added stress for parents. “It’s a very serious problem in this country and especially in our province that working parents, and especially mothers are contemplating the prospect of not being able to go back to work because they can’t find a daycare space or they’re not sure what the school days are going to be for their children.”

Wilkinson said the plan for re-opening schools seems to be in “disarray” and the government should have this essential service figured out by now.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education said its advice for parents of elementary and middle school students is that they should plan for full-time in-class learning in September. The ministry said a committee of parents, teachers, support staff, First Nations and public health officials, has been established to develop a final plan for all grades for September. More information will be available at the end of the month.

On the issue of daycare, Wilkinson advocates for an online application system that would list every publicly funded daycare space to create a streamlined list for parents looking for care.

Emily Gawlick, executive director of the Early Childhood Educators of B.C., said across the province, some daycares are opening with limited capacity and some at full capacity, creating uncertainty for parents. Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen, Nanaimo MLA Sheila Malcolmson and Dean are expected to announce new childcare spaces in Nanaimo and Ladysmith today.

In March, the B.C. government announced that its Childcare B.C. plan has funded more than 13,000 child care spaces since July 2018. However, many of the publicly funded child care centres and before-and-after school care spaces are still under construction. The government announced in March 462 new spaces in the Capital Regional District, 300 of which will be in elementary schools for before-and-after school care.

Gawlick said even with the prospect of new spaces, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already critical shortage of early childhood educators, who balk at stagnant wages while the cost of living rises.

The association says wages of between $20-an-hour for an early childhood education assistant and up to $29-an-hour for someone with a two-year college diploma, could help recruit and retain qualified staff.

Affordable daycare spaces are essential in getting parents, especially women, back in the workforce, Gawlick said. “It seems to be, for the majority, it’s the mothers who are working from home. [Women] are suffering financially and their careers are taking a back seat because COVID-19.”

Times Colonist