Parents are missing work at record numbers due to childcare problems and the ‘tripledemic’

November 17, 2022, 2:54 PM UTC
A mother plays with her three children as they all sit on the floor of their home together.
A record number of American parents missed work in October because of childcare issues.
Maskot/Getty Images

The intersection of a health crisis with a massive shortage of childcare staff is forcing working parents to take time off from their jobs at unprecedented rates.  

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of working parents missing work because of childcare problems hit record highs in 2022.

Last month, the number of employed people who weren’t at work because of issues relating to childcare hit an all-time high of 104,000, according to ongoing government surveillance. That’s the most it’s been since the peak of the pandemic in 2020.

Before the pandemic, the number of parents forced to skip work to care for their children in the month of October hadn’t surpassed 42,000 in any year dating back to 2003.

This year’s problems are arising from a shortage of childcare workers combined with a so-called “tripledemic” – simultaneous outbreaks of flu, COVID and RSV that are making kids across America sick and pushing children’s hospitals to their limits.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that an early spike of winter viruses had hit the U.S., noting that young children were particularly at risk.

The eruption of respiratory viruses has meant huge numbers of school pupils across America have had to stay at home.

At the end of October, a Virginia school closed when almost half of its students were absent with flu-like symptoms, while 42% of students in New Haven public schools are reported to have missed at least 10 school days during this academic year thanks to an uptick in respiratory illnesses.

In Kansas, a premature jump in cases of seasonal viruses has led to widespread absences in recent weeks, while illness-driven school absences have also been forcing parents in Philadelphia to stay home from work.

Parents of preschoolers are also being affected by the outbreaks. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden asking for an emergency to be declared over the “alarming surge of pediatric respiratory illnesses.”  

Since the pandemic began, young children are thought to have become more susceptible to the symptoms of RSV – a common winter illness that’s usually mild but can cause lung problems in more severe cases. RSV is known to be riskier for young children, but when COVID lockdowns suppressed outbreaks of the disease, babies and toddlers were unable to build up immunity to the virus. It’s thought that this has had a knock-on effect of making subsequent RSV epidemics worse than usual.

“My kid is home for the sixth week in eight today,” Devora Rogers, chief strategy officer at market research firm Alter Agents, wrote on LinkedIn this week. “I'm lucky to work at a company where I can work remote and do what I need to for my family. But how many others don't have this luxury?”

The issues also create additional headaches for the more than 33 million Americans who aren't guaranteed paid sick leave, many of whom are low-paid and frontline workers.

Childcare crisis

The impact of the tripledemic on working parents has been exacerbated by a childcare industry that has failed to fully recover from a pandemic-era worker exodus – making it difficult for working parents to access childcare even if their kids are well enough to attend.

As of October, the sector’s workforce was still almost 10% smaller than it was in Feb. 2020, shortly before a third of people employed in childcare left the sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. High bars for who can be employed to take care of children also mean recruiting new staff is difficult.

Childcare facilities across the U.S. have subsequently had to close their doors, cut the number of days they operate, or limit the number of children they can enroll.

Kuddly Kids, a daycare center in Hortonville, Wisconsin, is among those affected, and has had to temporarily close until it finds more staff.

“We are in need of at least three full time teachers and two part time,” it said in a Facebook post last week. “If we don’t get any more employees, we will not be able to continue to care for the current enrollment of children we have.”

“We sit on the precipice of collapse,” Sarah Siegel Muncey, co-founder of Neighborhood Villages, a Boston-based childcare nonprofit, told Fortune earlier this month. “There's one fix to the childcare crisis, and it is investing in childcare as a public good.”

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