PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Blog Post · April 15, 2020

Emergency Child Care for Essential Workers

photo - Teachers and Toddlers in Daycare

Of the state’s estimated 5.1 million essential workers, about 1.9 million have children younger than 13. These parents may be having difficulty finding care for their children amid the COVID-19 crisis, with most schools closed and many child care providers shuttered.

To address this need, the California Department of Education issued guidelines last Thursday for temporarily restructuring state-provided child care services. Parents who are essential workers can apply for services during the pandemic even as the state continues to prioritize certain at-risk children regardless of parents’ occupations.

Child care programs that receive state funds are now encouraged to remain open—or to reopen—if they can safely do so in order to care for the children of essential workers. To be eligible, all parents in the household must be essential workers and require child care so they can continue working (for example, they do not have the option to work remotely).

More than half a million essential workers with about 640,000 children younger than 13 could qualify. About 43% of these essential workers have a youngest child between 0 and 4 years old at home, while the rest have older children. Most of these parents work in health-related occupations, which are prioritized in the guidelines to receive child care services.

figure - A Majority of Essential Workers with Children 0-12 Have Health Care Jobs

On Monday, Governor Newsom announced that $100 million of the funds allocated in SB 89, emergency legislation to fight the coronavirus pandemic, will go toward funding up to 20,000 more short-term child care slots—and making child care programs safe for those children and their teachers. The CARES act provides federal funds to states for these purposes, so California will recoup these expenditures.

While we don’t know how many state-subsidized programs have remained open, even in the best of times the number of spaces is limited so most children—including those in low-income families—cannot access such care. However, demand for child care is indicated by the number of children in low-income, essential worker families. During this emergency, essential worker families do not need to show they are low income when they seek child care. However, programs are instructed to prioritize families.

About 400,000 children in essential worker families live on incomes below 85% of the state median—the income cut-off for state preschool in normal times. While a majority of parents in essential jobs work in health occupations, most low-income children have parents working in other essential occupations. In other words, tension may arise between serving children of low-income essential workers and serving children of health workers.

figure - A Majority of Children of Essential Workers Are in Low or Moderate Income Families

In this time of uncertainty, the state has existing capacity to support child care, and it has shifted the goals of state-supported programs to help essential workers meet—and afford—their child care needs. By tracking the response, the state could gain insight into whether it is meeting the needs of essential workers in this difficult time, how to meet these needs in the longer term, and to what extent needs vary across the state.


child care coronavirus COVID-19 essential workers Gavin Newsom Health & Safety Net K–12 Education reopening working poor