Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, school semesters have been postponed, many are working from home, and all things declared non-essential have closed. With all these changes, child care for many has become a challenge. In a move to ensure that frontline workers and their families are looked after during this unprecedented time, Ontario’s Ministry of Education announced free child care for this workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those eligible for childcare include health care providers, firefighters and police officers. However, some workers are missing from this list – workers who have also stepped up to support their communities during this crisis.
The people who work in grocery stores keeping food available, those who clean buildings to prevent the spread of the virus, and restaurant workers working to keep people fed have also put themselves on the frontlines – and potentially at risk – during the pandemic, but are not eligible for child care coverage.
It is crucial to extend the definition of frontline workers to include all people who are working to keep Ontario safe and healthy.
These workers face precarity in employment due to shift work, lower wages, and often receive less protections at work. Additionally, while some workers belong to unions with opportunities to speak up about their working conditions, most of this workforce doesn’t. During the COVID-19 crisis, they are also less likely to be able to practice social distancing, both at work and on their commute.
These aspects of precarious work often make it difficult for individuals and their families to access basic necessities at the best of times. Add the stress of working during a pandemic and finding affordable child care, when most child care providers are now also closed, many are left in a tenuous position.
It’s an endless cycle, which often forces parents who can’t afford child care to pay for unlicensed child care out-of-pocket, or to leave their children at home unsupervised.
Child care has always been a fundamental piece of our economy, but with COVID-19 taking over the lives of all Ontarians, it is crucial now more than ever. The province’s emergency child care eligibility criteria does list those “performing work that is essential to the delivery of core services in their communities, as determined by the municipality or First Nation.”
However, this leaves the decision-making responsibilities to local governing structures. Currently, the City of Toronto does not cover these occupations for City-run child care centres, but does indicate that the list of eligible workers “may change as the emergency evolves and will be updated as required.”
The Province should ensure that this essential group of workers and their children are recognized and eligible for government-funded child care. This will not only reduce stress for low-income families during these uncertain times, but will also ensure that children are in safe environments.
The ways in which we support these essential workers in receiving equitable access to childcare during this crisis will speak volumes about how we value them and their service. It’s time we recognize how much our society relies on them, not just during a state of emergency.