In between days filled with finding the latest Sesame Street episode to entertain her two-year-old son and scheduling conference calls during naptime, there's a question Luisa Herrmann-Nowosielski continues to grapple with as states start to roll back their coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders.
What happens to parents who have no child care and can't return to work?
"[Child care] feels like an afterthought," Herrmann-Nowosielski says, adding that when politicians get these questions during press conferences and interviews, they seem to shrug them off, saying they'll figure that out and that it's not a big deal. "I disagree. I think it is a huge deal," she says.
For Herrmann-Nowosielski, it's been nearly 60 days since her son was in full-time day care. The 32-year-old director at a Boston-based technology company says that while she has a supportive boss and spouse, each day is a struggle. "The pressure that I feel is to continue performing at the same level that I performed when I had my own office, in an office building, with nine hours a day of day care," she says.
These days, there are a lot of discussions about productivity and making sure everyone is trying to maintain "business as usual," Herrmann-Nowosielski says, adding she keeps seeing emails and articles filled with tips on how to stay productive while working from home. "None of those talk about a toddler crawling all over my laptop, or the dog that keeps staring at me because their food bowl is empty," she says. "Nap times are sacred because it's just chunks in the middle of the day where I can have meetings.
And she worries that being a parent could jeopardize her job. "If they were looking for people to lay off, they would be looking for people who haven't been as productive — and that would be parents," Herrmann-Nowosielski says.
Yet she says she feels as though she's one of the lucky parents right now — she's still employed and she can work remotely.
While Herrmann-Nowosielski has spent the last two months struggling to simultaneously be productive at work and care for a toddler, she's facing an arguably bigger issue as states begin to reopen: Who will care for her kid if she has to go back to work?
Currently, Massachusetts' day cares, preschools and child-care centers are only open for children of emergency personnel. The governor has plans to end the state's shelter-in-place orders on May 18, but child-care centers won't reopen until at least June 29. That leaves a gap of about a month where non-essential workers may have to scramble to find alternative child-care coverage if their employer requires employees to physically return to their workplaces.
Herrmann-Nowosielski thinks her employer will allow her to continue to work from home if the office reopens before her day care, but she's also looking into contingency plans — including hiring a nanny.
Before the pandemic hit, she enrolled her son full-time in a local day care and paid about $2,800 a month. A nanny would cost more. "That would be probably at least $20 an hour," Herrmann-Nowosielski, adding that while she could perhaps she could cut costs by having the nanny work fewer hours, it's likely that option will still be much more expensive than even her far-from-cheap day care.
Massachusetts is far from the only state with a child-care coverage gap. Ohio started to implement its phased reopening plan on May 1, with construction, distribution, manufacturing sectors, as well as general office workplaces, allowed to open their doors for business on Monday, May 5. But child-care centers remain closed with exceptions for essential personnel. Ohio governor Mike DeWine set up a working group on May 1 to investigate when child-care centers can reopen, promising to provide a more concrete timeline on May 11.
Texas allowed retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen on Friday, as long as they maintained a maximum of 25% capacity. Yet the state kept in place its order making child-care programs available only to essential personnel without designating returning retail employees as essential.
"I feel day-care centers are a super afterthought," Herrmann-Nowosielski reiterates. With schools closed through the end of the school year, she argues leaders seem to think they don't have to worry about making contingency plans for children.
Not every state is keeping child-care centers closed. New Mexico started reopening on May 1, allowing non-essential retailers to begin offering curbside pickup and delivery services. State governor Michelle Lujan Grisham also extended child-care coverage to people operating non-essential businesses.
It's not just state policies that impact how working parents are handling the child-care gap, employers also play a role. While it's yet to be seen how the majority of employers will respond to this challenge, companies need to be as "flexible as possible," says Rhiannon Staples, an HR industry expert and chief marketing officer of HR tech company Hibob. "This is an unavoidable circumstance," Staples tells CNBC Make It.
While there were some hiccups in the beginning, companies and employees are getting accustomed to this setup and adapting to manage any hurdles that come up — including balancing work with child care, says Michelle Armer, chief people officer at CareerBuilder. "While there is a chance that remaining at home could impact someone's career, companies understand that everyone is in a situation they are unfamiliar with and will try to be mindful of that when creating their policies."
Workers should be upfront and open with their managers and HR teams to explain the situation. "Approaching this proactively and head-on shows that you are serious about your role and finding a solution," Armer adds.
The delay in reopening child-care centers in some states may not be due to a lack of planning, but rather, an abundance of coordination and caution. "This isn't a light switch that we're going to be turning back on again — there's a real runway needed and some real thought that needs to be put into how we effectively open up child care again," says Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America.
Child-care providers will have to dramatically revise their operating policies and procedures, not to mention getting the necessary equipment and staff in place. And that takes time and money.
Clinton, Mississippi-based Funtime Preschool has remained open during the pandemic, but owner Lesia Daniel says that it's been an uphill struggle to keep up with changing rules and the latest health guidelines.
"Everything about everything we do has changed," Daniel says. "Social distancing toddlers is like trying to give a group of cats a bath." Yet the center's staff is diligently attempting to do just that.
The day-care center, which operates out of two locations and typically has 360 children in attendance, had just 82 children as of last week. But for those still attending, Funtime has introduced a new morning drop-off procedure. Parents drive up to the center, get their kid out the car and stand behind the vehicle until the child can be evaluated. A Funtime staff member — wearing a mask and gloves — takes the child's temperature and records it before escorting them into the building to wash or sanitize their hands and then onto their classroom. "It takes time," Daniel says.
The center is operating at less than 25% capacity, and Daniel says the financial burden of these new procedures is already overwhelming when taking into account the extra staff and protective equipment needed. Before the pandemic, Daniel says she was able to buy 10 boxes of standard disposable latex gloves for $28. Last week, she paid $90 for the same gloves.
Daniel was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but it's not a long term financial solution. "We're floating right now, honestly, one week to the next," she says of the center's financial situation.
"We've incurred so many additional expenses that are not always a part of our budget, but we feel like we have to in order to make sure we're providing the highest quality care in the safest manner possible," Daniel says.
But while parents like Herrmann-Nowosielski want their children to be safe and understand the challenges child-care centers, day cares and preschools face in reopening, they're still left in a bind if these services remain closed as the rest of America are expected to return to work.
And it seems to Herrmann-Nowosielsk that it will be up to parents to figure out for themselves how to make it all work. "Honestly that's what always happens," she says. But amid the pandemic, it feels even more like "an impossible situation."