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New Department of Labor Rules Put Parents Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Department of Labor is using newly-released restrictions for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) to force families to send their children back to in-person school, even when an all-online option is available to them. These restrictions only serve the interests of the capitalists.

Olivia Wood

September 18, 2020
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Since the beginning of the pandemic, governments and employers have been trying to keep as many people at work as possible to keep production flowing and profits up. We saw this especially over the summer, when certain states resisted partial shutdown for as long as possible, and reopened very quickly, leading to a rise in coronavirus cases. However, a big obstacle to sending people back to work is childcare; in order for parents or other caregivers to go back to in-person work, their children need to go back to in-person school. With many school districts operating on a fully-remote or hybrid schedule this fall, the Department of Labor is actively pressuring working parents to send their children back to school in person, even when they have the option to keep them home. This policy clearly shows the government’s vested interest in prioritizing profit over people’s safety.

Beginning April 1, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided two weeks of paid leave at 100 percent pay, to be used at the employee’s discretion, for workers who are unable to do their jobs for Covid-related reasons, including having to care for children whose schools are closed. Primary caregivers of children whose schools are closed are eligible for an additional twelve weeks at two-thirds of their regular pay — a pay cut that makes this option inaccessible for many families, especially families living on a single income. 

However, in late August and then again on September 11, the Department of Labor issued additional “clarifications” (restrictions, really) on who is eligible for these benefits. Many school districts are proceeding with a hybrid learning model paired with an option for fully-remote learning, and some of the new guidelines are specifically intended to dissuade parents from choosing remote learning over hybrid classes. The fully-remote options have been extremely popular in areas where they are being offered, with, for example, 42 percent of families in New York City choosing all-remote learning and similar numbers elsewhere. But now, families who choose to keep their children at home will not be eligible for paid leave under the FFCRA. 

Implications for Families

There are many reasons that parents may choose remote learning for their children. Congregating indoors for long periods of time is fundamentally more risky than staying at home, even though the exact level of risk varies across individual circumstances. Twelve weeks of paid leave would enable someone to stay home with their child for most or all of the rest of the calendar year (again, only if they can afford losing one third of their pay), depending on the school’s calendar. Under the new restrictions, however, families are robbed of even that level of flexibility. Unless a family can afford one caregiver taking extended unpaid leave (and many families only have one caregiver), they will be forced to either send their children into school for hybrid learning or leave their children at home unsupervised. 

Under the Department of Labor’s new guidelines, most parents — or at least, the parents fortunate enough to still be employed — who have this option will have their decision made for them. Most parents cannot afford three months of unpaid leave, with no unemployment benefits. Those who criticize mask mandates due to infringements on their “freedom” ought to be much more concerned about this — a lack of freedom with very real material consequences, as some number of those children will inevitably contract coronavirus and bring it home to their families. Even if that number is very small, it is unacceptable. But in most areas, it is unlikely to be small. 

Teachers, students, and school staff around the country are sharing images on social media of the wholly inadequate safety conditions at their schools. Some places lack functional sinks or soap dispensers in the bathrooms. Some places have newly-installed hand sanitizer dispensers, but these dispensers are empty. Some places that have been allegedly “deep cleaned” have obvious signs that no such cleaning occurred. Many schools lack the physical space to hold socially-distanced classes, and even more lack the staff to do so. School custodians are reporting that even if they had the necessary staff to fully clean their buildings before school starts, they don’t have enough supplies. Currently, coronavirus cases are growing at a rate of five percent or higher in eleven states, up from eight states last Friday. Total case counts in these states remain low compared to earlier in the year, but as we know from March and April, the rate of growth can increase very quickly. 

This is not the only rule affecting paid leave for childcare, however. Parents are also not allowed to take paid FFCRA leave for childcare if another care provider is available. What exactly counts as “available” and who counts as a “child care provider” is wide open for abuse by employers eager to deny these benefits to their employees. The broad definitions of these terms could classify many families as having an “available childcare provider,” making them ineligible for paid leave when no such provider is actually available. The Department of Labor’s FAQs say that “child care provider” includes “individuals paid to provide child care, like nannies, au pairs, and babysitters. It also includes individuals who provide child care at no cost and without a license on a regular basis, for example, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or neighbors.” In other words, the Department of Labor is outsourcing the cost of child care onto underpaid, exploited professional care workers and spreading the remaining labor across the rest of the working class in the form of extended family members and other care networks. 

Under this definition, a family member — say, a grandparent — who normally picks up a child from school and watches them for a few hours in the afternoon before their parent gets home, could now be expected to watch the child for the full duration of the parent’s workday. While the grandparent would not be legally obligated to do so, this could still be cause for denying a parent’s request for paid leave under the law. This is an enormous amount of additional labor, which neither the government nor the parent’s employer will pay for. 

The same applies even in the case of professional childcare. In that situation, the family must replace the time the child would normally be in school by paying for a professional babysitter themselves. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a babysitter to watch one child was $16.43 in 2018. With a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and with the average hourly wage for all American workers at $27.16, this is simply not affordable for most families. While many families would undoubtedly find ways to minimize the number of hours they need to pay for childcare (likely through the help of unpaid relatives or friends), a single parent making average wages without other childcare options would still be spending more than half of their income on childcare alone — and that’s if they only have one child. Workers already pay for public education via their taxes, so the parent is essentially paying for someone to supervise their child twice-over. 

The Problem of Childcare Under Capitalism

This problem is merely a new manifestation of an existing form of exploitation. Capitalism incentivizes the bourgeoisie to maximize profits in any way possible — the most gain for the least cost. Capitalists need to pay workers — either directly through wages or indirectly through government services, paid for by tax dollars which are taken out of wages — only as much as they need to survive at a high enough standard of living to prevent them from demanding better. Marxist feminist Lise Vogel argues that children are a particular annoyance to this system, because children consume resources without being able to work, and require care from adults who could otherwise be part of the workforce. Capitalists are therefore incentivized to “resolve” this problem by either monetizing as much of the childrearing process as possible for their own gain or by convincing the working class that providing for children is nobody’s responsibility but their own — not their employer’s, and not the government’s. 

Many aspects of traditional gender roles serve in this capacity, such as the notion that women are biologically predisposed toward motherhood and ought to find domestic tasks inherently satisfying. This is not to say that people don’t love their children or find joy in parenthood. However, by naturalizing childcare as an individual obligation rather than a social one (i.e., a community is responsible for caring for all children in that community), this stereotype places moral blame (for being “irresponsible”) on parents who struggle to financially support their children while exempting capitalists from any responsibility toward their employees’ children. And until effective birth control and safe and legal abortions are easily accessible for everyone, parenthood is not always a freely-made individual choice. 

It’s important to remember that wages do not change relative to how many children a worker has. Some individual employers may offer childcare-related benefits, or may consider children in salary negotiations, but the widespread notion of a “family wage” (i.e. a wage intended to sustain a worker and their entire immediate family) is a thing of the past, if it ever existed at all. So, by using the FFCRA rules to force families to pay for childcare out of their own pockets or rely on their loved ones for unpaid labor, capitalists are able to retain more of their profits without paying them back to the workers via paid leave. 

The Department of Labor has not implemented these restrictions on paid childcare leave out of necessity, but out of deference to capitalist interests. The most lucrative companies generate billions of dollars in profit — not revenue, but pure profit — every year. For workers at smaller companies unable to pay for leave themselves, the FFCRA could pay for leave through a wealth tax. There is more than enough money to provide paid childcare leave for everyone who needs it. A socialist society would redistribute labor across people able to work while those who need to stay home for safety or caregiving reasons could do so without penalty. But we don’t need to overthrow capitalism in order for families to stay home with their kids — that could happen right now. 

Finding childcare for online learning while the parent or other caregiver goes back to work is one option for families, but it’s an option many families will not be able to afford. The other option — which benefits the capitalists even more — is for parents to send their children back to school for hybrid learning, freeing up the parents to continue producing profit for the capitalists. These new “clarifications” on FFCRA paid leave create a win-win scenario for capitalists, and a lose-lose scenario for the working class. It’s yet another burden on people already suffering and struggling to make ends meet under the pandemic and economic crisis, but it’s a perfectly logical solution for a system built upon our backs.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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