I'm seeing a lot of posts online fully attributing the labor shortage to government stimulus checks and lazy employees or to greedy businesses unwilling to pay a living wage. Both of these overly simplistic perspectives miss a really important factor that's become highlighted during the pandemic- lack of affordable reliable childcare. This was an issue before Covid, but has been exasperated and become more obvious during the pandemic.
First let's talk availability- I'll speak local here, as those numbers are easier to find. According to a local article from a couple years back, in much of my county, there’s one licensed child care slot for every four children with working parents. Meanwhile, the number of licensed spots for children has dropped by 8 percent since 2012. Because of this, many of us rely on friends and family covering part of our childcare needs, but that support system was pretty much stripped away when the stay at home order hit last year. In our situation, we'd been relying on a number of retired friends and family members to help. Unfortunately their age and medical situations put them at risk for Covid, so we lost that support until vaccinations became available.
Assuming you can find a slot, even at a small non-profit daycare, it is SO EXPENSIVE!!! With our former daycare rates if I'd put both kids in full time daycare at 3 months old, and they moved up a classroom at each birthday, then magically entered kindergarten the day they turned 5, per child I would spend nearly $73,000 over the course of 5 years, totaling nearly $146,000 for two children. (In case you're wondering, you can buy approximately 3.5 brand new base model Teslas with that amount of money.)
Let's see how this would have played out for an average female employee during Covid, as women are more likely to have dropped out of the labor force to care for children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2019, women earned a weekly average of $889/wk in Washington, around $22/hour and let's say $45,000 annually, assuming two weeks of combined unpaid vacation/ sick days. But then there's Covid... let's assume this woman has two kids, and each kid has one exposure at daycare, and she and her partner both get exposed to someone with Covid once through work. Each of these exposures require a 14 day quarantine. Assuming no exposures overlap, that's 8 weeks off work, bringing this theoretical average woman's gross pay down to about $37,000. Let's assume her income, stacked on top of her spouse's, is taxed at 15%, and of course has payroll taxes withheld. That leaves her with just under $29,000 after tax pay. If her kids were the same age mine were, under 1 and just under 3, her daycare costs for a full year would have been about $28,000. The math there tells a pretty clear story as to why she may have chosen to exit the work force.
But these numbers are for an average female, so what about the 50% of women working full time who are earning less than $889/week? Consider those lower paying jobs that tend to offer less flexibility- you can't simply work from home if you're a grocery clerk, a waitress, a house cleaner, a nurse, etc. What would her income look like if she experienced a layoff? What if she pulled her kids out of daycare while laid off and then there wasn't an opening when her job opened back up? Looking at these numbers, it's amazingly clear exactly why any employees earning anything between minimum and average wage would choose to stay home with their children over working a job that doesn't even cover the cost of paying someone else to watch their child.
This is a hard situation with no easy solutions. I encourage you to resist the urge to blame this conundrum solely on "lazy" employees currently out of the work force or on "greedy" business owners. We're all doing the best we can, and some have it much, much harder than others. Do the best you can, always be gracious, and look out for folks who need a little help.