The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the child care market and forced many child care programs to close their doors—leaving parents with even fewer options. But in addition to creating new challenges, the pandemic has also shone a spotlight on existing disparities, including in child care options for parents who work nontraditional hour (NTH) schedules—defined here as any work outside of 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays.
Previous research suggests NTH work is widespread in the US (particularly in the accommodation and food, arts and entertainment, retail, and healthcare industries), these families face additional challenges finding child care, and the home-based care arrangements these families usually use are less likely to be supported by public funds. These factors, in turn, directly shape the types of child care these families can access, which can limit their opportunities to work, earn a living wage, and support their kids’ healthy development.
Our new research, which studies Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Washington, DC, aims to better understand which families work nontraditional hours. We found consistent patterns across the three places: children in families facing greater structural inequities and barriers to employment, education, and other opportunities—including Black and Latinx families and families with lower incomes—are disproportionately likely to have parents working NTH schedules.
When policymakers understand which parents are more likely to have NTH schedules, they can more effectively and equitably design and target policies to help parents access the child care options that work best for their families.
Parents in families facing greater structural inequities and barriers are more likely to work nontraditional schedules
Across Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Washington, DC, between 2014 and 2018, we found that about one-third of kids younger than 6 with working parents have a parent with an NTH schedule. Because we are focusing on the implications of these work schedules for child care, we only count kids with single parents working these hours and kids who have two parents who are both working during the same nontraditional hours during the week or anytime on the weekend.
Across the three sites, nontraditional parental work schedules are much more common for families who already face challenges because of structural racism and systemic inequities in access to education, health care, and good-paying jobs. Kids with parents working NTH schedules are more likely to be in families who are Black, Latinx, multiracial or of another unspecified race; have lower incomes; have parents with lower levels of education; and are one-parent families.
Previous research has found that NTH work schedules are more common among Black and Latinx workers, a pattern related to unequal policies and practices driven by structural racism in the education and labor market, which have limited job opportunities for communities of color.
In addition, workers who are Black, Latinx, have less education, and have lower incomes are more likely to be essential workers who face a greater likelihood of being exposed to and contracting COVID-19. We looked at the nontraditional work patterns of parents working in essential industries—the businesses most likely to have continued operation and requiring their employees to work during the pandemic. Across the three sites, between 2014 and 2018, we found that half or more of the children younger than 6 with parents working nontraditional schedules had parents who were working in essential industries. The characteristics of these families were similar to the patterns described above, with NTH work much more prevalent among essential worker families facing greater inequities and barriers.
Families with NTH schedules have significant child care challenges
Even before the pandemic, the formal child care market did not effectively meet the needs of families working NTH schedules. National survey data show that only 8 percent of child care centers are open during nontraditional hours, and though regulated family child care homes tend to have more flexible hours than centers, two-thirds do not serve families during these hours. The overall supply of regulated family child care is relatively small in comparison with other sectors and has been declining in recent years (PDF).
Families with NTH work schedules have been more likely to use settings that were legally exempt from licensing, such as relatives, friend and neighbors, and other small informal home-based care settings. Although there are no national studies yet, research suggests the COVID-19 crisis and its negative effects on the child care market have led even more parents to turn to home-based child care options.
But public funds to help parents afford child care are not as available to families working nontraditional schedules, as public funding for child care assistance has been increasingly used to purchase care in child care centers. In 2018, 73 percent of the children served through the Child Care and Development Fund were cared for in child care centers—an increase of 15 percentage points from 2005.
How policymakers can better support NTH working families
The current formal child care market does not adequately serve families working NTH schedules. To better meet these families’ needs, states may consider supporting parents’ ability to find and pay for care offered during NTH schedules, especially the home-based child care options many of these parents use.
Policymakers, stakeholders, and child care advocates can also pursue the following:
- talk with parents to better understand what types of child care these parents want during different times and for children of different ages
- design policies to help parents access the care options they need, such as allowing child care subsidies to cover the full range of child care options, including relative care, small home-based providers who are exempt from licensing, and licensed family child care and center-based care
- invest in strategies to support the supply of the range of child care options willing to provide care during nontraditional hours
By pursuing these steps, policymakers can better understand the child care needs of working families, address racial and economic inequities, and ensure parents have the opportunity to best support their children’s healthy development.