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Even as their role in fighting COVID-19 has become clear, child care workers remain an afterthought

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White, Alexi & Lysack, Monica
Publication Date: 
26 Mar 2020


Across the country, schools are closed — many of them indefinitely. But child care centres are open, and offering extended hours.

Ontario committed to offering free 24-7 child care to essential workers 10 days after the province had decided to close schools, and only then, after outcry from doctors, nurses and police officers who couldn’t find care for their children. Municipalities are scrambling to get emergency child care centres opened and operational, with most, including Toronto, saying they won’t be able to open their doors before Friday.

In other words, it wasn’t until workers from other sectors raised the alarm, that Ontario noticed it had a child care problem.

This pandemic has shone a light on the indispensability of child care to our society and exposed how child care workers — 97 per cent of them women — are taken for granted.

Contrast Ontario’s response with Quebec’s, where the government announced school and child care closures at the same time it promised free child care would be available for essential workers. Quebec’s first emergency child care centres opened on March 16, the same day Ontario said it would close all its licensed centres, offering nothing in their place.

This difference in approach is telling of a wider gulf in how these provinces value child care. Quebec’s low-cost, universal child care has been in place for over 20 years, and it’s a big reason why Quebec women are employed at a rate that is five percentage points higher than women in Ontario.

Without parent fees coming in, it’s hard to know what options will remain for parents wanting to return to work once this pandemic has ended. Child care centres are low-margin and often non-profit organizations that will struggle to keep up with overhead costs such as rent. Many are likely to close their doors in the weeks ahead, which will worsen an already gaping shortage of spaces.

In hard-hit British Columbia, child care centres that remain open are eligible to receive seven times their average monthly government funding, while those that choose to close will receive support for fixed operating costs, like rent or lease payments.

Governments have been at a loss for how to support child care workers, who will be in harm’s way during this pandemic. Early studies suggest children are at less risk of serious illness from COVID-19, but they are likely invisible carriers and key spreaders of the virus.

The Ontario government has said it will be implementing as yet unspecified safety protocols in its temporary centres, but this should raise the eyebrows of anyone who has tried to maintain proper public health procedures around a toddler with a runny nose.

Even as their role in fighting the pandemic has become clear, child care workers remain an afterthought. Minister of Education Steven Lecce and Toronto Mayor John Tory were careful to praise the heroic efforts of our essential workers and thank the civil servants working overtime to open the new emergency child care centres, but neither of their statements thanked the child care workers who will staff these centres.

This is largely par for the course. Despite a growing body of research that links structured education in the early years to long-lasting benefits to the child and to society overall, the truth is that we have long undervalued child care as “babysitting” or “women’s work,” even as we ask child care workers to nurture those most important to us. This social perception is changing, but progress is slow, and we have not yet seen the kind of sea change that countries like Denmark have worked hard to create.

Today, child care workers in Ontario are paid barely more than minimum wage. They have few benefits, little job security, and work long hours in a stressful work environment.