The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the extent to which child care affects Californians’ ability to work. This is especially true for women, who spend more time caring for children, even in households with multiple parents and even when both adults are working. The pandemic also exposed child care providers to greater health risks, contributing to staff shortages and affecting their ability to operate, much like in other key service sectors. While the economy overall has essentially recovered to pre-COVID job levels—just 0.6% behind pre-pandemic levels as of May 2022—child care employment is still lagging.
In the first two months of the pandemic, the child care service sector lost 35% of its jobs (a loss of 28,000 jobs). This decline far outstripped the economy’s overall job loss of about 15%. The hardest-hit service sector, leisure and hospitality, fell by 48%. Another care service sector—nursing care facilities—fell by a relatively small 10% during the worst of the pandemic (losing 14,500 jobs).
As of May 2022, the child care service sector is still 9% behind pre-pandemic employment levels. This level of recovery is similar to that of the nursing care sector and leisure and hospitality. However, the recovery trajectory is markedly different across these three service sectors. The child care service sector has seen a relatively steady recovery, in line with that of leisure and hospitality, whereas nursing facility employment has not seen much recovery at all.
Child care is offered through a number of providers. The employment trends above reflect the majority of child care jobs in home- and center-based settings, but child care workers may also work in school districts or religious organizations, or they may be employed in private households (e.g., nannies). The most up-to-date employment data does not allow us to tease out child care workers from other workers in these latter sectors. We note, however, that although child care service employment still lags behind pre-COVID levels, employment in public schools has recovered.
Despite the slower recovery of the child care service sector, California’s families are largely back to work. During the initial months of the pandemic, the employment rate among California fathers with children at home fell by 8%; for mothers it fell by 12%. But as of May 2022, the shares of fathers and mothers who are employed have essentially recovered to pre-COVID levels. In fact, the share of employed mothers is higher than pre-COVID.
Note, however, that men—and especially men with children—are more likely to be employed than women in California, pandemic or not. Roughly 93% of fathers with young children in their household were employed in the last quarter, compared to 60% of mothers with young children.
How is it possible that employment in child care services still lags behind, but California’s parents are working at relatively high levels? There are many potential factors at play. Given higher operating costs and declines in attendance, child care centers had to reduce staff during the pandemic. Families may have also shifted to care from family or friends, part-time care, or other informal or flexible arrangements, especially for those working from home or with hybrid work schedules. Declining birth rates also mean that there are fewer children under five in need of care, though this trend pre-dates the pandemic. And for households, rising wages amid a tight labor market—as well as rising costs due to high inflation—have likely led more parents to join the labor force.
Looking ahead, California’s policies to support a robust child care system will be critical—not just for children’s early learning but also for the state’s economy. The ongoing expansion of transitional kindergarten to cover all four-year olds by 2025–26 will provide a key public option, but gaps in availability across schools are a concern, as is the provision of full-day care. This program will also not directly address access and affordability for those with younger children. California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care lays out recommendations to address some of these shortcomings, as well as to strengthen child care providers through funding reform and workforce development. This year’s record state budget makes a number of investments toward the Master Plan. Finally, efforts to expand and improve employer-provided child care options—perhaps through public-private partnerships—could provide additional avenues to increase care options for working families.