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When N.Y. businesses reopen, working parents will face a challenge: child care

As more businesses reopen and parents return to work, they will need to figure out child care arrangements in one of the most challenging environments imaginable.

Exactly how that will unfold remains to be seen. One thing, though, seems clear: the obstacles will prove greater for parents in lower-paying jobs that can't be done from home.

“It will be uneven among socioeconomic lines, as is frequently the case,” said Julie Anna Golebiewski, a Canisius College economist.

At the end of April, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outlined some of the state’s plans for reopening more of the economy – something that he said would require the schools to reopen.

“Schools are necessary for a large-scale business reopening,” he said. “So you couldn’t really get to a maximum phase two without reopening the schools.”

Five days later, Cuomo announced that schools would not reopen for the rest of the academic year. The state has not announced if summer school programs and summer camps will be permitted to open.

So what will that mean?

There’s no simple answer, experts say.

Help from second parent

One in four workers in Western New York have filed for unemployment – a rate that’s about double what it was during the Great Recession, and approximating that of the Great Depression, according to George Palumbo, another economist at Canisius.

While the high unemployment rate clearly means bad news financially for families, it might actually end up helping with the scarcity of child care while schools are closed, he said.

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“The tragedy of a 25% unemployment rate makes it easier right now because of the likelihood that the other parent or an older sibling would be home to take care of the kids,” Palumbo said.

What may help even more is the fact that not all businesses will reopen at once. So in families where both parents had been working but now are unemployed, if one returns to work before the other, the family’s child care needs will be addressed.

There’s no way to know exactly how many workers might benefit from such a scenario once they return to work.

Most likely, such a possibility will not surface equally across industries, he noted. It will benefit those that generally employ a higher percentage of workers in two-parent families, which are often higher-paying fields.

Inequity across industries

Jobs have not been lost at equal rates across industries.

Restaurants, hotels and stores have been hardest hit, largely the result of shuttering brick-and-mortar locations. Jobs in those fields account for one out of six jobs in New York State – but one out of three unemployment claims filed in the state from March 15 through April 25, according to Golebiewski.

Many of the jobs in those industries are among the lowest paid.

“Industries that suffer the biggest brunt of the economic downturn have the lowest wages,” she said.

Construction jobs, too, accounted for a disproportionate share of unemployment claims. About 4% of jobs in the state are in construction, while 9% of the unemployment claims are, she said. Many of those workers are expected to be among the next to return to work.

Also accounting for a disproportionate share of unemployment claims: administrative and support services jobs, such as clerical positions. They account for 5% of the state’s workforce, but 8% of the unemployment claims, Golebiewski said.

For many of these lower paid workers, especially those in single-parent households, the reopening of the economy will bring with it some difficult choices.

“I think that it is a likely outcome that either they are unable to come back to work as a result of schools being closed,” she said, “or they are likely to bring the kids to the grandparents, which we all know is not necessarily a safe option.”

Child care businesses have remained open in New York during the pandemic because they were deemed essential by the governor.

But some workers may not be able to afford child care, especially if the schools remain closed for months. Even after the schools reopen, parents may struggle.

“How many people are depleting their savings, and even if they do go back to work are going to have a hard time finding the money for after school care?” Golebiewski said.

More people working from home

To a large extent, businesses have adjusted to enable as many people as possible to work from home. That brings its own challenges, like trying to focus on business calls while kids are bickering. But it also means that those workers don’t need to choose between earning a paycheck and ensuring their kids are safe.

“Some people we thought would never work from home are working from home, and that might alleviate some of the stress,” Palumbo said.

West Herr is among many companies that have made changes to comply with state directives while continuing to operate. The car dealership’s sales operations have been modified for online sales. In-store deliveries are by appointment only.

“Many of our employees are currently working in new remote capacities, so we feel this will allow more flexible schedules for those team members juggling responsibilities with children,” said Scott Bieler, president and CEO of West Herr.

For the most part, employers have already shifted online whatever jobs they could. So when businesses reopen, the jobs that are reinstated will generally be those that require employees to be on-site.

“It isn’t as though the new businesses coming back are going to allow their workers to work from home,” Golebiewski said. “If they could, they would have remained open.”

White-collar workers escape the brunt

Some industries – employing mostly white-collar workers – have suffered less, on the whole, during the pandemic.

Finance and insurance jobs, for instance, account for 5% of the state’s workforce, but only 1% of the unemployment claims during the past several weeks, Palumbo said.

Bank branches have remained open, although service has been limited to drive-thru transactions and other services by appointment, and jobs in other areas have shifted online.

“We have not been closed at all. We haven’t furloughed anybody,” said Kathleen Rizzo Young, a spokeswoman for Evans Bank. “Our branch people are all working in the branches. Everyone else is working from home.”

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