Why Extended Hours Child Care is a Revolutionary Food Justice Issue

From foodtank.com, by Jeremiah Lowery
Why Extended Hours Child Care is a Revolutionary Food Justice Issue

My three-year-old son was diagnosed with a chronic illness and my immediate supervisor at the restaurant I worked at started to take notice to my struggle to maintain my schedule. She offered to support me in any way to accommodate my schedule because I'd been such a dedicated worker, committed to overcoming obstacles in order to effectively do my job. I was grateful for her consideration and flexibility. I adjusted my schedule to reflect their school schedule, which meant less hours and less money. I was able to get a consistent schedule for us; however, the trade-off was our quality of life. I eventually had to give up my apartment because I wasn't able to sustain financially on what I was making. The set schedule, with flexibility for my son’s condition and not having to rely on unstable childcare, felt like the better of the lesser evil. Eventually it ended up not working in my favor. Upper management changed and became an all-male management staff with little empathy for my situation as the primary caregiver for my children. I began encountering unfair treatment due to my family responsibility as a caregiver. I was held back from promotional opportunity because, as I was told, my availability kept me from being considered. On another note, I was able to make a verbal agreement with my new supervisor; however, our agreement must not have been translated because I essentially was later fired due to my child being dropped off at the job.
- Tiffany, mother of two

The traditional American work hours of 9-to-5 do not exist in the restaurant industry. In a two-parent household, usually both parents work; therefore, children need to be watched by another person or in a facility. In a single-family household, most parents have to work two jobs—one of them often on a late-night or overnight shift. Parents in the restaurant industry need access to affordable overnight and extended-hours child care centers. These facilities that provide a safe alternative to leaving children home alone during late shifts.

The rapidly rising cost of child care in the United States is becoming a bigger affordability crisis then higher education. According a study by Child Care Aware America, a national organization of child-care resource and referral agencies, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care was higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college. How can working families in our restaurant industry be expected to pay for child care, save for college and retirement, and have anything left?

The current statistics and policy work on child care reveal that the system fails parents who work nonstandard hours. Parents in late night, often low wage, jobs are the hardest-hit. With the economy moving toward jobs that require workers to put in later or longer hours, what is the current state of childcare options for these parents? According to a study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, “forty percent of the U.S. labor force works nonstandard hours, including nights and weekends, but child care resources available during those times are rare.”

In Washington, D.C., a city with a booming restaurant industry, there are 490 licensed child care centers, of which only 30 offer late-night care, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which licenses early-childhood centers. Although its as good start, it’s not enough: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United reports food service jobs, which require nonstandard hours, are proliferating at a faster pace than those with traditional hours.

However, increasing the number of overnight child care centers is not the only policy recommendation that communities should push for. Here are a few other recommendations:

  • Fund education campaigns to inform all parents of existent options.

  • Create a department of child care. Montgomery County, Maryland, councilmember Hans Riemer recently introduced a bill that would create a Montgomery County Office of Child Care, Early Care and Education to make affordable, quality, enriching child care available to all families. Riemer explained “the Office would be charged with developing, updating, and implementing a child care strategic plan that addresses child care and early learning in a comprehensive way; establishing new relationships and partnerships with agencies and businesses; overseeing the selection of child care providers in public space; and building a stronger bond with parents in the community.”

  • Work with mobile software developers to create apps that help working parents find and rate child care centers in their community.

  • Develop and fund child care cooperatives within the community.

  • Encourage and work with the restaurant employers to inform working parents of their options. Also, large employers should consider offering child care subsidies as a benefit.

Communities, restaurant employers, and political leaders must dismantle the barriers that prevent working parents in the food service sector from starting a job because they have no child care options; overturn a system that forces a working mother to leave her kids with an abusive boyfriend overnight because she has no other choice; and remove ingrained attitudes and policies that punish parents for having careers in the restaurant industry.

Give working parents in our food movement a peace of mind so they can focus on their career or education while providing better lives for their children. Developing better extended-hours child care policies ensures every parent in the restaurant industry is healthier and happier, which in turn makes our food system and restaurant industry stronger.