It’s still January, and Kristy Anaya has already used up all 21 hours of vacation time available to her so far this year.
She missed work again on Thursday to care for her three-year-old son, Xavier, who was kicked out of his third day care since March.
Child care was a problem before coronavirus for the single mother of two living in Chandler, Arizona. During the pandemic, it’s been a nightmare. Day cares operating at reduced staffing are quick to pull the trigger when Xavier acts out, said Anaya, 42.
"I'm in the 'I'm not sure what I'm going to do right now' phase,” she said. "Without the child care, how am I supposed to go to work?"
Anaya is one of hundreds of thousands of moms wrestling with one huge side effect of the coronavirus crisis.
A USA TODAY analysis of new Census data shows that Americans missed more work than ever before due to child care problems in 2020, and the burden was shouldered almost exclusively by women.
The number of women with child care-related absences in any month more than doubled from 2019 to 2020. Women accounted for 84% of all workers who missed work in the average month last year due to child care issues -- a five-year high.
Men, too, missed more work to care for the kids. But the impact wasn’t nearly as severe, and their share of the burden actually decreased from previous years.
For Anaya, child care problems have led her to consider asking the gastroenterology office where she works to put her on furlough until she can find a solution.
Her supervisors have been understanding throughout the pandemic, she said, even as she piled up more than a dozen absences to take care of her kids. She once dropped Xavier off at 7:30 a.m., got to the office and then was called to take him home two hours later.
If not for her 20-year track record of solid attendance before the pandemic struck, Anaya said, she’s not sure she would still be employed.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director of MomsRising, a group that advocates for increased family economic security, said the current crisis has put pre-existing problems into stark relief. Child care was already expensive, and providers operated at thin margins, she said, and then COVID-19 hit. A survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center found 70% of parents reported their pre-pandemic day cares either closed or reduced capacity.
President Joe Biden’s coronavirus recovery plan calls for $25 billion to stabilize child care centers at risk of closing, and an additional $15 billion in child care aid for struggling families.
Rowe-Finkbeiner said such investments are a start. Paid sick leave, medical leave and fair wages are also needed to put moms on an equal playing field, she said.
"Just as we need infrastructure investments in bridges and roads so we can get to work, we also need investment in child care so we can get to work,” she said.
Other hits from coronavirus
Women missing work for lack of child care was only one of the pandemic’s many impacts on the workplace.
Last year, more people also missed work due to illness than ever before, demolishing historical records. The number of people who reported missing work for unspecified reasons grew fourfold. Meanwhile, vacation usage fell off a cliff as trips far from home became a challenge.
The USA TODAY analysis used federal Current Population Survey data compiled by IPUMS-USA at the University of Minnesota. The Census Bureau asks thousands of people each month about their employment status and work lives, including whether they missed work the previous week and why.
Because the survey overlooks missed workdays during the rest of the month, it’s likely to vastly understate the number of workers affected by child care difficulties.
For moms to keep working through the pandemic without interruption, the price can be high.
Consider Megan Falke, a 37-year-old nurse practitioner at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Early in the pandemic, she finished her 24-hour shifts at the hospital at 7:30 a.m. She came home to take care of her newborn daughter and guide her two young sons through virtual learning. She made her family dinner in the evening before finally falling asleep, exhausted.
Her husband, Patrick, started asking to work from home so he could help. He went into the office once a week, but his supervisor stopped assigning him projects. By mid-April, he was fired -- Falke thinks it was retribution for working from home.
Once they were a single-income household, she had no choice but to work each and every shift. The couple needed the money.
And while her hours got longer, her budget for conveniences got shorter. No getting take-out after a busy day. No babysitters to give mom and dad time off. None of the distractions that would make their situation any more bearable.
“All the things that help when you need help, we couldn't afford it,” she said.
In September, Patrick took a part-time job working for a nonprofit.
That’s helped financially, Falke said. But she worries more about contracting COVID. Her husband doesn’t have paid time off. If he has to miss work, she worries how they would make ends meet.
Before the pandemic, she said, she’d been doing some work with an advocacy organization in favor of expanding paid family leave, maternity leave and other benefits that would disproportionately benefit moms.
"And then I feel like the next year of my life was an example of why it's needed,” she said. “Paid maternity leave. Paid sick leave. All these things that we need... businesses would have happier employees if they offered these kinds of things."
Back to school
The start of a new school year often brings a reprieve for working parents who struggle finding reliable child care. That happened in 2020 as well, but the improvement was small and short-lived.
The average number of women who missed work due to child care problems dipped 9% from August to September, then roared back 31% in October.
Michael Madowitz, an economist with the Center for American Progress, said he doesn’t think the anticipated wider return to in-person learning will solve everything. There were deserts of child care in rural areas before coronavirus, he said, while urban parents had to get on waiting lists that could last over a year.
The stress of the pandemic will only exacerbate those issues.
He said he worries the lack of child care infrastructure will soon have an impact on the labor market. Already, he said, moms are taking themselves out of the labor force to take care of their kids. When they go back to work, they may have a hard time finding employment.
“I'd be shocked if there weren't some degree of employer discrimination going on,” he said. “Parents are subtly, maybe subconsciously, having that count against them.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Childcare amid coronavirus: When schools closed, women paid the price