Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

Unpaid childcare is an invisible subsidy to companies and the economy—it’s time to change that

March 20, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

Any working parent knows that full-time childcare is most often not as full-time as their job. Despite sick kids, caregiver absences, and more, we show up at work each day, because most of us can’t not. 

The coronavirus crisis has only intensified this reality. With school closures, day care shutdowns, self-quarantines, and caregivers staying away when showing symptoms so as to keep children and others safe, parents across the country are scrambling to find backup childcare.

So who is picking up the slack?

For households with one or two working parents, the solution is most often in the “village”: a last-minute search for any collection of babysitters, grandmothers, friends, cousins, or neighbors who can provide care for little ones. This invisible village mobilizes when we need them—during school holidays, when work meetings run late, and when a fever means day care can’t take our child. 

Along with a family’s primary caregivers, this village fulfills some of the most intimate and critical needs in our lives. But most of this care is unpaid: Like We Care project, with whom I have collaborated on research in the caregiving sector, found that “every year, we generate $3.67 trillion of care work, but we only pay for $393 billion of it.” And it’s disproportionately performed by women. Kristen Ghodsee and Gus Wezerek concluded in the New York Times, “If American women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made $1.5 trillion last year.”

This unpaid care is providing an invisible subsidy to the companies parents work for and to the economy at large. That’s not right. 

The time has come to redefine the village to include the companies we work for and the economy we are supporting with our labor, all of whom benefit from this kind of care. When a caregiver fills a gap, a company has an employee who would otherwise be absent, and the economy has a productive worker. The caregiver should be compensated for that labor.

I’m cofounder of Helpr, a technology company that facilitates payment to a family’s care provider and pairs families in need of backup childcare with vetted caregivers. Our business would benefit if more families, companies, and government entities used our services to pay for or provide subsidies for childcare services.

Being able to pay a last-minute caretaker for their help increases the likelihood parents will be able to find someone they can trust and makes it easier for caregivers to keep their commitment to the arrangement. Under this model, a caregiver receives extra income. In a country like ours where nearly 40% of adults can’t handle an unexpected $400 expense, an additional $40 a week could be the difference that keeps them out of debt. 

If employers offered 80 hours per year of subsidized care at $15 an hour to ameliorate the potential loss of work days, the cost to the employer would be $1,200 a year, or $100 a month. That cost is likely worth it for an employer to know that an employee won’t have to drop out of work at the last minute because of unforeseen childcare issues. According to a report from the Economic Opportunity Institute, “Employees with inadequate childcare are more likely to be late for work, absent, or distracted on the job than parents who are confident about their children’s child care arrangements.”

Reliable backup care also leads to healthier families. In the 2017 Kaiser Women’s Health Survey, nearly one in four women said they had put off seeking health care because they did not have time to go to the doctor. Fourteen percent of women in the same study noted that their not getting medical care was a direct result of difficulty obtaining childcare.

There are already precedents for the idea that all forms of childcare—even when done as a favor by friends or family—should be compensated. CalWORKS, a public assistance program in California, has a parent choice program that allows a relative, friend, neighbor, licensed family day care, or childcare center of a parent’s choice to receive a subsidy to take care of their child. These subsidies are targeted toward low-income families, helping them pay for and find care that fits their oft-changing schedules, including for those seeking employment.

If you want to do something amid the current crisis, donate to the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Coronavirus Care Fund, which is raising money to replace income for domestic workers who can’t work. But going forward, we need to give our caregivers more than our donations in a crisis.

Caregiving is a labor of love. But it’s labor nonetheless, and work that silently supports the bottom line of every single company and organization in the world. We need more stakeholders to commit to financial incentives in this space. And we need to compensate care for what it’s truly worth to our employees, families, communities, companies, and economy.

Kasey Edwards is founder and CEO of Helpr.

More opinion in Fortune:

—The next Great Recession has already begun
—Combating coronavirus starts with keeping health workers well
6 steps to sustainably flatten the coronavirus curve
Vague remote work policies won’t cut it during the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: CEO of Canada’s biggest bank on the keys to leading through the coronavirus

Listen to our audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily