The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges and magnified existing ones for all Americans, but this has been especially true for the women and men who serve as health care workers. Nowhere is this more evident than the issue of childcare, where immediate help is needed if we are to prevent a new crisis from developing.
Like many health care workers, I dreamed of this job from a young age. When I entered nursing, I knew there would be challenging days ahead. Few professions face life-and-death moments as frequently as ours, and there have been too many stressful moments to count. But the reward of caring for people in need far outweighs any of those concerns. Like virtually everyone I’ve ever worked with, I look forward to each day with a renewed sense of purpose.
But now, in the face of this historic pandemic that has upended so many lives, health care workers like me are finding the most pressing challenges are not unique to our profession. At the top of the list – who is going to look after our children while we are at work caring for others?
I oversee nursing staff in a number of dialysis clinics in eastern Tennessee. The people I care for depend on regular dialysis treatments in order to live. Treatment sessions are needed three times a week, multiple hours per session, and missing even one session can be life-threatening. These people are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and their well-being absolutely depends on the reliable caregiving we provide. As much time as we spend together, we view our patients as members of our extended family.
At the same time, most of us have families at home, including school-age children. Like many Americans, we have to find a work-life balance. Unlike many Americans, however, the well-being of others could be at risk if we aren’t able to work.
By my count, I work with 34 people who have school-age children. These are people with extensive training, six months minimum in most cases, but many with much more. They cannot be easily replaced. Unfortunately, that is a prospect that we may soon have to confront.
It has been well-reported that childcare is a concern for many parents. We hoped that the issue would be resolved when school restarted, but rising case counts have led many locations to move to virtual classrooms, either in full or in part. This means childcare concerns will extend at least through the end of this year.
As a result, multiple staff that I work with have already indicated they will have to move to a part-time schedule or quit entirely. One staff member has already cut back to two days a week.
For young children, leaving them at home alone is not an option. Even for high school students, I don’t think it will come as a surprise to learn that an adult is often needed to keep a teenager on track in a virtual classroom. The fact that many of our nurses report to work as early as four o’clock in the morning leaves them unable to access traditional daycares at this hour and unable to help their children get set up and logged into a virtual classroom. The people I work with cannot afford tutors, babysitters or other outside assistance. Other options, such as daycare, are closed in many locations. This includes church daycare offerings, which many in my area rely on. And for older students, daycare isn’t an option at all.
My experience does not appear to be unique. A recent Care.com survey of 2,000 parents found that nearly three out of four may have to make major changes at work due to childcare concerns, with nearly half indicating they will need to change their schedules and one in five potentially looking for a different job. But if my highly trained colleagues need to do the same, the well-being of others will hang in the balance.
This is why we urgently need Congress to step up and provide health care providers with childcare assistance. Lives depend on it. While Congress should be applauded for including funding in previous relief packages, that money has not filtered down to essential health care workers.
States have distributed this money directly to childcare providers or tied it to a worker’s income. While helping low-income workers is certainly needed, many nurses I work with are unable to afford childcare on their own but are above the income thresholds states have established. That is why Congress needs to take an additional step and ensure all front-line health care workers are able to access this aid so we can continue to balance work and family demands.
Though this will continue to be a stressful time for people in my profession, just as it is for all Americans, we are grateful to show up to work every day with the responsibility of caring for others. But we cannot do it alone. I hope Congress will prioritize essential health care workers and ensure that we can continue to look after all those in our care, both at home and at work.
Kim Bowlin is a director of operations for Fresenius Kidney Care in Bristol, Tenn.
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