SNIFFLENOMICS

The US still has a pandemic-level child care problem

People are missing work to take care of their kids at near-record highs

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A cold and flu medicine section has minimal offerings in a CVS pharmacy on December 6, 2022 in Burbank, California
Cold medicine shortages are a sign of bigger economic problems.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

The number of employed people in the US missing work due to child care problems is at the level it reached in fall 2020, during the heights of the Coronavirus pandemic:


This chart, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, comes from economist Kathryn Ann Edwards, who studies labor markets and inequality. Like many American parents, she’s seen the surge in respiratory illnesses among children—besides covid, medical authorities report high levels of flu and a virus called RSV. Amidst local shortages of children’s cold medicine, she visited four different stores before she could find Tylenol for her own kids.

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“However much we would like to emotionally move on from the pandemic, we are not beyond it,” she says.

The share of parents missing work due to child care problems is a relatively small number of the 159 million people working in the US, but Edwards warns that this indicator likely undercounts the total impact.

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For one thing, each data point is a sample for one week in a given month. For the reference week in November, 59,000 Americans reported missing work due to child care problems. But for the entire month, the number could be several times higher. Over the course of an entire year, a rough estimate of parents missing work might be in the range of 1.3 to 2.4 million working parents. This indicator also leaves out part-time workers and workers who work more than 35 hours a week.

The bigger problem for the US economy

Parents staying home to tend to sick kids is likely the primary reason for these numbers, but there are other dynamics. Since the pandemic began, authorities have issued stricter rules about keeping sick children out of daycare and school. There is also an ongoing shortage of childcare workers, an occupation that has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels as many workers were able to find jobs with higher wages. And because most states regulate the ratio of children to caregivers, missing childcare workers translate directly into less care available.

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These figures should also make us wonder what happens to parents of sick kids who can’t afford to take off work. Some 1 in 4 private workers in the US don’t have paid sick days, and workers can be fired for missing hours to care for a sick child. That might mean shifting the burdens of childcare onto friends and family, or simply leaving the workforce altogether. The labor force participation rate in the US still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic heights and is now at about the level we saw in 1977. Edwards wonders, “how many parents are we pushing out out the labor force?”

Public debate over the labor markets has lately focused on how demand for workers has led to low unemployment, driving up wages and contributing to inflation. At the same time, however, labor productivity has been dismal in 2022, a warning sign for the economy. One reason US workers may not be producing as much, besides job churn, is that so many face disruptions in their daily lives. Consider that in September 2022, more than one million workers told BLS surveyors that they had missed work due to the pandemic and, in a fine symbol of a yearning for a post-pandemic world, the BLS has now stopped asking about it.