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Opinion Virginia parents need paid leave


Monica Jackson is the owner of Jackson Child Care in Springfield.

I immigrated to the United States from Trinidad at 16 and have worked hard to take advantage of the opportunities this country offers. I built my state-licensed child-care business from scratch in Springfield, where I’ve lived for the past 30 years.

My mission is to lay the foundation to help preschoolers achieve later academic success. It’s challenging but gratifying. Without the work done by child-care providers such as me, parents can’t provide for their families. There’s an enormous need, and it’s only going to get greater.

The coronavirus made that task much harder. During the pandemic, more than 5.4 million women have left the workforce, many because they lacked access to affordable child care. The nature of day care changed overnight because of the pandemic, and the child-care industry needed assistance to implement health and safety measures. That’s important for the well-being of the kids, but also for the safety of the adults who care for them.

Although some child-care providers stayed open during the pandemic as an essential service, my age (I’m 68) and my medical history (four high-risk classifications) were factors in my decision to close for a month at the beginning of the outbreak.

Early on in the pandemic, I secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan that helped me to comply with the new health and safety guidelines. The stimulus funding and grants totaling $30,000 were instrumental in sustaining my business.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, I had two employees. Both came back to help me reopen, but had to leave for health and personal reasons. When a second round of PPP funding was made available, I hired one staff member and offered a quality summer program. Now, as the school year gets underway, once again I find myself working alone. I’d like to increase enrollment, but I can’t find qualified employees.

The worker shortage stems from historically low wages in the child-care industry. The starting salary to attract a qualified employee who would do a good job is $15 per hour — more than even I make after factoring in costs and expenses. And as with the vast majority of small businesses in the country, I can’t afford to offer benefits such as paid leave. But paid leave would be a tremendous draw that would help me attract and retain qualified employees.

It also would be a massive benefit for those of us already employed in this line of work. Child-care providers operate with predictable risks, but those risks increase when parents who can’t afford to stay home with their sick kids bring them to day care. As they see it, the alternative is to lose income and potentially lose their job. The pandemic increased the severity of this risk drastically.

Given a choice, most parents would prefer to stay home and tend to their sick children. I feel enormous sympathy for parents who are trying to hold on to their jobs and who feel they have no choice but to drop off a child running a low-grade temperature or with a mild tummy ache at the child-care center.

But how can I reconcile the risk of taking sick kids so parents can work? As the sole worker at my child-care center, who will watch the kids if I get sick? And how will I earn a living if I must close when myself or the kids fall ill? If I close, then none of the enrolled families will be able to work.

Virginia, like Maryland, has no paid family leave, though D.C. does) — in fact, Virginia doesn’t require paid sick leave in most cases. President Biden’s American Families Plan would have created a national, federally funded paid-leave program that would have helped me to provide paid leave as an employer and also help the families I serve. When parents stay home with their sick kids, it helps my business stay safe and open. Some businesses can’t afford to provide paid leave, but my business can’t stay open without it. Because paid lave didn’t make it into the spending plan released by the White House on Thursday, it’s essential that the Virginia legislature pass a paid leave bill in the session that starts in January.

A paid leave plan will help working parents, my business, the community and the economy. It is the first step toward creating a healthy economy that works for everyone. The pandemic forces us to look at how we treat our business’s most valued asset, its workers. From a human perspective, there are some things you can’t compromise, and this is one. We need to value and invest in the current as well as future workforce.

There’s an African greeting: When people meet each other, they say, “How are the children?” If the children are well, that means the economy is well. The pandemic has shown us what it’s like when people work in unsafe conditions. Access by parents to reliable child care in a safe and healthy setting is what is needed to keep the economy going.