In the United States, a whopping 43 percent of children have a parent who works “nontraditional hours,” or during the early mornings, nights, or weekends. And yet just 8 percent of child care centers offer care before 7am or after 6pm. While families of all types require care during nontraditional hours, Black and Latinx workers and low-income workers are disproportionately more likely to work during nontraditional hours.

Last month, at the U.S. Care Instructure Conference hosted by IWPR, American University’s Program on Gender Analysis and Economics, and the Carework Network, advocates and experts discussed models for expanding child care beyond the usual center hours to meet families’ unique needs.

The workshop highlighted two union-negotiated initiatives to extend child care availability.

Deborah King, a former SEIU employee, shared her experience in helping to pioneer the 1199SEIU Child Care Fund for healthcare workers in New York in 1992. For 1199SEIU employees, many of whom are women working in healthcare outside the usual hours, this program is a critical benefit to help them balance family and work responsibilities. This fund, with the recently added Greater New York Child Care Fund, now annually supports 12,000 children ages 0 to 17 through affordable care and a wide variety of programs, including school vacation coverage and summer camps. Half of workers who use this benefit use it for care with neighbors and family during nontraditional hours.

Liz Skidmore, of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, recognized a similar need for care during non-traditional hours for construction workers in Boston. Skidmore’s team and other community partners joined together to set up a three-year pilot program called Care That Works in partnership with SEIU Local 509. The program matches licensed child care providers with trades workers who require child care earlier than standard work hours. Providers receive overtime pay during early morning services, so the program improves both the earnings of child care workers and child care access. The program is funded through investments from the union, the city, and local contractors, with hopes to expand and support more women in apprenticeships and construction trades jobs.

Home-based child care settings are more likely than centers to offer care outside of regular business hours, with more flexible scheduling and payments. Yet, just as workers needing child care at early or late hours often face unique difficulties, in-home care providers encounter obstacles when trying to provide their services, from difficulty getting licensed to stringent education requirements.

Alexandra Patterson from Home Grown shared ways the government should support and expand access to home-based child care by recognizing these needs of home-based providers. Patterson pointed to New Mexico and its Early Childhood Education and Care Department as one example of a solid investment in both licensed centers and smaller home-based child care programs, bringing stability and growth to these critical providers.

To meet the needs of families across the United States, it is important to reform the system to lower the barrier of entry for all care providers. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the country lived in a child care desert where licensed child care simply was not available. Becky Levin from AFSCME argued that licensing standards should be reformed to recognize family child care: “There are qualities [of child care providers] not captured in a college degree,” yet policy discussions tend to be very focused in the educational requirements of providers. Meanwhile, there is little recognition of the role of reimbursement levels to allow home child care providers to recoup investments in quality and pay their staff decent wages. Right now, argued Jaya Chatterjee of Community Change Action, our system isn’t working for anyone: “We need federal investment that works for child care workers and families because right now we’re not doing right by either of them.”

Fortunately, for a great model of employer-supported child care, Eiko Strader, an Assistant Professor at George Washington University, suggests we turn to the military. Through a combination of center-based and home-based care, the military as an employer supports military families’ needs for quality, round-the-clock child care, while also providing decent wages for child care workers. Strader’s research indicates this care infrastructure reduces the motherhood penalty and improves gender and racial equity in the military, as well as helping the military recruit and retain and meet it operational needs.

The federal government, state governments, and employers can all play a role in building an affordable, high-quality child care system. Policymakers should ensure the child care system considers the needs of all families, including those who work outside the traditional 9 to 5.