Child care is a challenge for the many parents with unpredictable work hours

Samantha Fields Jun 12, 2023
Heard on:
More than a quarter of parents need care outside of traditional working hours, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. But that can be difficult to find. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Child care is a challenge for the many parents with unpredictable work hours

Samantha Fields Jun 12, 2023
Heard on:
More than a quarter of parents need care outside of traditional working hours, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. But that can be difficult to find. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Every weekend, Eshawney Gaston gets both of her work schedules for the coming week — one for her job at Pizza Hut and one for her other job at Church’s Texas Chicken in Durham, North Carolina.

“Some days I could work mornings, some days I’m working nights, some days I could work all day,” she said. “It’s just kind of whenever they can put you on or whatever days you get.”

At 25, almost every job Gaston has had — in fast food, in retail, in home health — has been like this, where her schedule has changed frequently and often at the last minute. 

Now that she has a 1-year-old son, she hasn’t been able to find affordable day care that works with her unpredictable schedule

“It’s hard, because I don’t have anybody to watch him besides my friend. And the days that she can’t or if she is busy, and then it’s hard on her,” she said. “I don’t like calling her saying, last minute, ‘Hey, I got to work tomorrow,’ or ‘This is my schedule for the week.’ It takes a toll on both of us.”

This is the norm for millions of parents, especially those who work low-paid, hourly service jobs in retail, food service and hospitality. A recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that nearly a third of parents don’t know their work schedule more than two weeks in advance, which has a significant impact on their ability to arrange child care. 

“It is really hard to wrap your head around just how much instability service sector workers routinely contend with,” said Kristen Harknett, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-director of The Shift Project, which collects data on work scheduling for hourly service workers.

Not only is it common for people to get less than two weeks’ notice of their work schedule, “but even that really underestimates the scope of the instability. Because many of these workers then see their shifts canceled at the last minute, or they’re called at the last minute and asked to come in when they weren’t expected to,” she said. “And three-quarters of service sector workers tell us that they’re expected to keep their schedules open and available for work at virtually any time.”

That often includes before or after the traditional hours that the vast majority of child care centers are open: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. More than a quarter of parents need care outside those hours or on the weekends, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. Yet just 2% of child care centers and 16% of home-based day care facilities are open after 7 p.m. 

“It’s hard enough as a working parent during just traditional work hours. Even when you have the same schedule every day, parents in this country are already struggling to get access to quality care that they can actually afford,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

“You add in precarious schedules and untraditional hours, and it just makes that formula so much more challenging. … How are you supposed to plan your life? And importantly, how are you going to plan the care for your children?”

Not knowing when or how many hours you’re going to work in a given week also means you never know how much money you’re going to make. 

“The combination of the unpredictable schedule and the unpredictable income is just devastating for parents,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of the nonprofit One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “You don’t want child care to be more expensive than what you bring in that evening.”

So most people in these situations, like Eshawney Gaston in Durham, end up relying on informal care — a friend, grandparent, neighbor or older sibling. 

But Lauren Hipp, national director at the nonprofit MomsRising, said many also end up in situations where they have to choose between a job or a shift and taking care of their kids.  

“In the worst-case scenarios, which happens a lot, families lose out on their source of income, their job and their financial security.”

A handful of cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as the state of Oregon, have passed “fair work week” legislation, requiring companies to give employees their schedules at least two weeks in advance and pay them more for last-minute changes. 

But parents still face challenges finding steady, affordable child care

“I think what we’re going to have to come to grips with in this country is that we need some kind of public funding of child care,” said Linda Smith, director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“In order to get the workforce that we need, we’re going to have to figure out how to make this system work for both parents and providers. And that’s going to take some public investment. Because in all truth and honesty, it simply costs more to produce child care then most parents can afford.”

As someone who’s worked in the service industry for years now, Eshawney Gaston would also like to see companies recognize the impact last-minute scheduling has on their employees. 

“It’s not cool, it’s not fair,” she said. “’I just gave you a schedule on Sunday, and now you’re coming in on Monday. And there are some days where I may … call you Monday morning and say, hey, you have to be in in the next few hours.’ Put yourself in other people’s shoes so that you can really see and understand what it feels like, especially if you have children.”

Some businesses in the service sector have moved away from just-in-time scheduling, according to Kristen Harknett at The Shift Project

“We’ve been able to compare and contrast practices across employers in the same kind of industries. So we can look across grocery stores, and we see that some rely really heavily on last-minute changes and on-call work, but others really don’t,” she said. “And they’re profitable, and their workers are more satisfied and more loyal, less likely to leave. So I think we can also try to educate companies that they don’t have to cleave to this just-in-time scheduling regime.”

They can give workers more notice, and it can have benefits — for workers and for the business. 

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