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It was an imperfect moment, which is precisely why it captured the current state of parenting so perfectly.
In a purple shirt and gray mask that kept sliding down her face, California assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) implored her colleagues to vote yes on a bill that aimed to expand affordable housing in the state—while simultaneously trying to soothe her newborn daughter. “We need to pass this bill,” Wicks pleaded from the floor of the State Capitol, as her four-week-old, draped in a striped blanket, squirmed and fussed in her arms. “Please, please, please pass this bill.”
Wicks later said that she did not plan to bring her baby to the floor. In fact, she hadn’t even wanted to bring her along to Sacramento, California’s capital, because of the then-rising cases of COVID-19 in the state. But despite her requests, she hadn’t been granted the ability to vote by proxy while on maternity leave. And so she made the trek from Oakland with her newborn in late August, the day of the vote. Wicks was in the midst of breastfeeding the baby in a private office when she heard that the housing bill, which she strongly supported, had come up for debate.
“I quickly detached her, threw a blanket on her, and ran down two flights of stairs to the floor to speak,” the assemblywoman says in an interview with Fortune several weeks after the vote. “Elly [Wicks’ infant daughter] did not appreciate the moment.”
But many others did. By the time Wicks made it back home to Oakland, the video of her impassioned plea on the floor of the capitol, baby in arms, was going viral. (The bill she was pushing, which would have produced new housing and introduced increased protections for renters, did not ultimately get passed.) Over the ensuing days, Wicks’ inbox was flooded with thousands of emails from parents, both commending and commiserating. Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton tweeted the story, putting even more of a spotlight on the assemblywoman—and the plight of parents everywhere.
“My hope is that this continues to drive a national conversation,” says Wicks. “From a policy point of view, we are failing families.”
Indeed, the pandemic has shone a light not just on Wicks but on a long-standing deficiency in the richest country in the world: The United States lacks both a federal parental leave policy and universal childcare. For decades, the caring of children has been viewed as a personal problem, something working parents—and maybe their employers—must solve for themselves. Now, with the pandemic forcing the issue into the forefront, the problem is being reframed as an economic one: If we don’t make it possible for working parents to return to work, our economy suffers, and we all suffer.
Of course, some suffer more than others: According to a recent survey from nonprofit LeanIn.org, working women are spending an average 7.4 more hours per week than working men on childcare. Parents of color are also at particular risk of shouldering more of the impact and are more likely to experience job disruptions owing to childcare issues than white families.
These issues are nothing new. But they are bubbling up with renewed urgency and could play a larger role in the upcoming presidential election than ever before. “This is an issue that resonates in red states and blue states,” says congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) “And it is a true impediment to getting back to work.”
In mid-June, Clark introduced the Child Care Is Infrastructure Act in the House of Representatives, which was passed in July as part of a broader act. The bill aims to provide some stability to the hard-hit childcare industry by providing grants for facility renovations and a student loan repayment program for early childhood educators. But Clark says the proposal is about much more than providing relief for day-care centers, preschools, and the people who run them. In order for the economy to ramp up again, parents need a reliable and affordable place to send their children. She also says much more is needed.
The Senate, too, has tried to propose solutions, including the Safely Back to School and Back to Work Act, introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), which also aims to help childcare centers stay open, among other efforts like decreased student loan payments for American families. “The way to get back to work and back to school is to put politics aside and work together as well and as fast as possible to get a result for the American people,” Alexander said in remarks he made on the Senate floor on July 27. Alexander’s office did not make the senator available for an interview with Fortune.
Earlier this year, Congress did allocate $3.5 billion in emergency funds for childcare centers, as part of the sweeping CARES Act, the economic stimulus bill passed in late March. But, thus far, it has failed to agree on a follow-up relief bill that would provide a bigger and broader lifeline to the childcare industry and working parents—not to mention unemployed Americans.
“We’re seeing a lag in understanding how critical this issue is,” says Clark. “How are we going to safely reopen our economy? It just doesn’t work if we don’t have affordable childcare that people can access.”
What’s at stake? According to estimates from the Center for American Progress, nearly 50% of day-care centers could be forced to shut down if they don’t receive more public assistance. As the country looks to reopen, this could have a massive impact not only because of job losses in the childcare industry but also because of the added burden on working families across all sectors. Parents make up a third of the workforce in the U.S., and their livelihoods and spending capacities are directly linked to the health of our economy.
Perhaps that’s why many in the private sector aren’t waiting around for the federal government to get its act together. While the government has dragged its feet on passing another relief bill, companies that can afford to have stepped up.
“Employers are coming to us,” says Tim Allen, the CEO of Care.com, an online marketplace for caregivers. “They’re saying, ‘How can you help us help our employees?’”
The CEO says he has seen a huge increase in demand both from individual parents and from corporate customers. Care.com has signed on 100 new clients since March, who use the service to offer their employees free or subsidized care for children or aging relatives.
Some companies have even offered parents of school-age children parental leave if their kids’ schools are shut down. In April, Microsoft announced a program called Paid Pandemic School and Childcare Closure Leave, which grants employees up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for their children. To be sure, not everyone can afford Microsoft-size benefits. And heads of human resources everywhere are struggling to fulfill the unprecedented needs of parents.
“We have to figure out how to solve for this on a broader scale,” says Tracy Platt, the chief human resources officer at Kansas City–based health care technology provider Cerner. “There has to be a broader intervention.”
That hasn’t happened yet. But many in the private and public sector say they are optimistic that now—finally—the time has come to truly make the childcare issue top of mind.
Presidential nominee Joe Biden has backed a bailout for the childcare industry, part of a broader proposal to help American caregivers and families. According to Biden’s campaign, the plan will cost $775 billion over 10 years and will be paid for by rolling back “unproductive and unequal” tax breaks for real estate investors with incomes over $400,000, among other means. The proposal also includes a federal parental policy that would grant parents up to 12 weeks of paid leave. “Families are squeezed emotionally and financially,” Biden said during a speech announcing the plan in July. “They need help, but too often they can’t afford it.”
President Donald Trump has also laid out several proposals that aim to fix the broken childcare system. Late last year, the Senate passed a bill backed by Ivanka Trump, his adviser and daughter, to fund paid family and medical leave for federal workers. Also last year, President Trump doubled the maximum for a child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000. But ironically, some low-income families don’t qualify for the maximum benefit, because they earn too little. Trump’s administration also says it has established “bipartisan consideration of national paid family leave,” though Republicans have generally not backed caregiving policies that are paid for through tax increases, as Biden’s plan proposes—and as any real attempt at universal childcare would likely necessitate.
But both Republicans and Democrats have clearly understood that this is a key issue for many in today’s even more challenging environment, and that taking care of caregivers plays a key role in resuscitating the economy. Assemblywoman Wicks thinks that this could be the “sleeper” issue in the upcoming election. However, the childcare issue did not figure prominently in Tuesday evening’s slugfest of a presidential debate.
“We’re the only industrialized nation without a national paid leave policy,” she says. “Voters are feeling it acutely now, and voters need to demand more.”
While Wicks’ housing bill did not pass, another bill did: a new policy that allows Californians to use protected leave time to care for a child, parent or other family member that has a serious health issue. Wicks considered it a win.
What’s more, the assemblywoman also got a public apology from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for not allowing her to vote by proxy. “The assembly needs to do better,” Rendon said. Wicks thinks the country needs to do better too.
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