When the pandemic led to a lack of child care, single mothers like Denise Tyree were left in the lurch, unable to work. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Denise Tyree, a single mother in Washington, D.C., looks for work online most evenings. Scrolling through listings on her laptop, she reads job descriptions, submits applications and sends off resumes for administrative and front desk positions.

But a lack of child care has complicated Tyree’s ability to find a job during the pandemic.

Her son DeVaun, 14, has autism spectrum disorder, a neurological condition that affects his social, fine motor and speech skills. DeVaun needs to be supervised at all times for his safety and well-being. This responsibility falls solely on Tyree, as she doesn’t have any family in the area for support.

Tyree relies on a local home health agency for child care. DeVaun typically has a caregiving aid come to their apartment each day, but Tyree said the care became unreliable during the pandemic. Some days DeVaun’s aide would cancel and other days the agency said there were no available caretakers.

As a result, Tyree has had to cancel interviews with potential employers and turn down jobs because she didn’t have coverage for her son.

“The lack of child care has negatively impacted me finding work because the hours that the employers require, I cannot commit to those times that the employer wants. The aides only come out at a certain time,” Tyree said.

Tyree’s challenges with child care highlight a problem many parents are experiencing in the United States. Child care is a vital service for many parents hoping to return to their jobs or find work. But during the pandemic, many child-care centers closed and some have not reopened. Roughly 11.6 million families with children said they had experienced child-care disruptions in August 2021 according to data from the Census Bureau.

“If you look specifically at child care, the recovery of child care is lagging behind the general recovery,” said Elyse Shaw, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a D.C.-based think tank whose research focuses on economic equality, gender and labor issues.

To compound the problem, child-care workers are often paid low wages in the United States, which has caused an exodus of workers from those jobs. The child-care industry is down 126,700 workers from pre-pandemic levels, according to Labor Department data. And as the economy reopens, the child-care crisis is preventing some parents from finding work or returning to work.

“People aren’t going to be able to work if they don’t have care for their children. We’re in this moment where working moms and working parents are being asked to figure it out on their own, and there’s no real resources or guidance to help them do that,” Shaw said.

In D.C., the rising cost of child care has become prohibitive for many parents. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed funding for child care in her 2022 budget, and the D.C. Council is in the process of shaping the mayor’s proposal. The Biden administration proposed making the temporary Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) permanent in the American Families Plan, which could help parents offset the costs of child care.

During the pandemic, women were hit harder by job losses than men. From February 2020 to May 2020, 11.5 million women lost their jobs, compared to 9 million men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Women-dominated fields, like service jobs, retail, hospitality and child care, sustained the most job losses. Some women also decided to leave the workforce to take care of their children, who were out of school and learning virtually.

Tyree said more reliable child care would allow her the flexibility to find a job. “I just need help out of the quicksand,” she said.