Parents Who Double As Essential Workers Are Struggling More Than Ever. Here Are Their Stories.

Parents who continue in-person work through the pandemic have a bleak choice: risk exposing your family to the coronavirus, or face financial devastation.

Since the early days of the pandemic, parents who can’t work from home — the people we now call essential workers — have confronted the dual risk of exposing themselves to the coronavirus at work, often for wages so low they are earning less than what people have been collecting on unemployment, while their children are exposed in schools and daycares.

There is little in the way of help. Essential workers have found it hard to collect unemployment benefits if they stop working to care for their families. Those who can afford professional childcare, and are willing to deal with the risks, have found it difficult to find open spots. Around the country, thousands of childcare centers have closed as work-from-home parents withdrew their children, unintentionally impacting parents unable to keep their children home. Enrollment at childcare programs is down by an average of 67% nationwide and only 18% of programs expect that they will survive longer than a year, according to a June survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

To keep their jobs, they’ve tag-teamed impossible schedules with spouses and relatives, cobbling together help from family and friends one day at a time. Sometimes it means asking older children to watch over younger siblings, or even sending kids to live safely with their grandparents.

BuzzFeed News spoke to essential workers around the country about the emotional and financial challenges of parenting during the pandemic. As hard as parenting has been for the work-from-home set these past several months, for essential workers it’s been much more difficult. At the end of a long day, when they come home, they don’t let their children touch them until they’ve taken off the clothes from the outside world. Some are bracing themselves for what they consider to be the inevitability of contracting the coronavirus. They’re drained and scared, especially single parents. These are their stories.

All interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Tracey, grocery employee and UFCW Local 7 member in Denver

Age: 57
Child Age: 6
Income: $19.16/hour
Childcare costs: $190/week

My husband and I both work during the day. When the pandemic started, I was managing a department at one of our stores. I was blessed that my employer let me work overnight, and it was tough. I went in anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight, and then I would get off at 6:30 or 8:30 in the morning. Sometimes I worked 12-hour days. I would come home, and as soon as I got home, my husband — he remodels homes and is a barber part-time — would leave to work. We have a mortgage and bills, so we really didn't have a choice.

My son was enrolled in school, so if he wasn’t awake when I got home, I'd get some sleep or I'd get some things done, and if he was awake, we’d get breakfast and then I’d get on his schoolwork. They took attendance and you had to be logged in six hours a day. But there's no way you can expect a parent to be logged in for six hours a day with their child. Then there was homework, so we would do homework during the day. I just slept when I could — I didn't get much sleep, but women are strong. And we didn't have a choice.

When everything started opening up again, we went ahead and put him in daycare. I had reservations about sending him to daycare, but as soon as I got the guidelines, I felt pretty comfortable and safe. I would never have sent him if they didn't lay out the guidelines for me. They don't even let the parents inside. They take his temperature. The masks are mandatory. And cleaning is every hour.

My hazard pay at work — $2 more an hour, $3 more if it was overtime — actually was helping me pay for the daycare. Basically, I was just working just to pay someone to watch my child. And later, the hazard pay stopped.

What do you do: send your child to school or lose your house?

I'm sure a lot of parents feel the same way that I do, that their hands are tied up working full-time jobs. I mean, just with the cost of living out here, you have to have two parents working full-time in order to just survive. I've got coworkers at work too that have the same fear: What do you do: send your child to school or lose your house?

Going back to school in the fall, there's always this thought in the back of my mind, that this virus is the Grim Reaper; it's a deadly virus and it can't be seen. We signed him up for a pod run by the school — that way he can go to school and he’ll stay in that pod throughout the year. To be honest with you, if my child was older and responsible enough, I would probably do the remote learning. He's a very good little boy, but there's no way he could do that by himself.

Bryan, EMT in Western Georgia

Age: 38
Children Ages: 17 and 8
Income: $12.50/hour
Childcare costs: NA

I’ve been an EMT for 12 years now. The job was always difficult in nature, but after the virus, it has become a lot more difficult. Compounding that with childcare, it’s very stressful. My kids are 17 and 8. The 17-year-old, he can take care of himself. The 8-year-old, we have to juggle that around because the school isn’t allowing face-to-face classes, so it’s all online. So when I am at work, his mom — we’re divorced — has to take him to work with her, while she is doing her job.

In my job as an EMT, I have patients with confirmed COVID cases, sometimes dozens through my shift. In the beginning, when we had little information on how contagious or deadly the virus was, I had to quarantine to keep working. Thankfully, I haven’t contracted the coronavirus. But keeping away from my kids was very stressful. The longest stretch I didn’t see them was about six to seven weeks. In the first month, we were all really nervous. Everyone thought they had it. If they sneezed, or their eye itched, or they coughed, everyone thought they had the virus, so call volume picked up tremendously. I FaceTimed as much as I could with my kids, but some days I was on the phone just trying to keep my eyes open.

EMS in general was already understaffed, so once the pandemic started, we were really strained. I was constantly at work, 70 to 80 hours a week. At first the kids didn’t really grasp the severity of what was going on. They’d just expect that they’d be able to see me next week, and then it was clear, well, Dad’s not going to be able to see you guys until this thing dies down.

That’s why you work — to provide for them and be able to take care of them. It was pure joy being able to see them again. 

I started seeing them again around May. I love my boys so much. That’s why you work — to provide for them and be able to take care of them. It was pure joy being able to see them again. That mental strain of the added call volume and not knowing what to expect, and then you get to see your kids again — it’s just a great feeling.

EMS in general is really low-paying, and the way you make a livable income is to work additional hours. I make $12.50 an hour — I have to work a lot of hours, but it is livable.

The company I work for doesn’t offer any benefits if you test positive for coronavirus. The CARES Act didn’t include first responders for mandatory paid sick time. It's kind of disheartening because there are signs up, “Healthcare workers are heroes.” But if we’re heroes, treat us like heroes. Unfortunately, the company I work for is cutthroat, so people are afraid to make waves. We all think we should get more benefits and protections, but no one has done anything because of the nature of the business. The job has its pros and cons; being able to help people in their time in need makes up for the low pay and not-so-good benefits.

EMS in itself is stressful, even before the pandemic. I cope by working out and hiking in nature away from everything.

Demetrus, security guard in Seattle

Age: 35
Children Ages: 7, 4, and 9 months
Income: $18/hour
Childcare costs: Approximately 50% of paycheck

My hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. When I get home, I don’t let my kids touch me. I take off my uniform. Wash my hands. I’m not taking chances.

Before the pandemic, one child was in school and one was in the YMCA daycare and we were on parental leave. After the pandemic, the daycare we did find for two of the kids, we were lucky our kids were the only ones there.

Our older daughter’s school is going fully remote. But you can’t work from home and teach kids also. She is regressing — she is having trouble reading the same book she was reading perfectly before all this. She has to stay focused. If we have to find childcare for her too, a third kid...I almost just want to get a vasectomy right now. So I’m thinking, I have to take her to work with me, because we don’t want to pay any more childcare costs. But I can’t — I don’t know who would chew me out more, the manager of the building or my boss. But I’ve been here 13 years, so if I needed to put her in a conference room, maybe I could. It was an idea. I’ve got 100 things going through my head — what are we going to do?

So I’m thinking, I have to take her to work with me, because we don’t want to pay any more childcare costs.

I tell myself to calm down, try to relax. It hasn’t helped. I’m getting more grays by the week. We do family walks. And when everyone is in bed, I go work out and play a video game. That helps get my mind off things.

Looking at my childcare costs, we’re pretty much paying to work. I’ll be frank: It’s unaffordable.

We need more money and more flexibility from employers, because if we have to start bringing our kids to work, we can’t get chewed out for it.

I’m trying to keep my family safe, but I have bills to pay, and security isn’t a field where you can work from home. It took my company months — months — to get us PPE, and it’s only because the building manager got on my company to get us masks and hand sanitizer. It was brutal.

Patricia, pharmacy technician in Los Angeles

Age: 49

Child Age: 9

Income: $22.65/hour

Childcare costs: NA

I am a single parent. My schedule is not set. It goes up and down even though I’ve been there for 30 years. And I can't be here doing my job and helping my daughter with remote learning. My mom, who is the person taking care of her at this point, is 72 — she has no knowledge of computer systems.

I asked my manager to use some of my personal time off to be able to be here to help my daughter. It's hard because she starts school at 9 o'clock in the morning. You log in, you log out, log in, log out. I have to make sure that she goes back on time, after her 10-minute breaks, her 30-minute lunches. We have to be on top of everything. And that’s where it’s hard for my daughter — when she tries to reconnect. She has to know all her passwords. I cannot depend on my mom to help her with that.

It is so stressful right now, and I feel that there should be some help for parents who are essential workers.

It is so stressful right now, and I feel that there should be some help for parents who are essential workers. I had asked for certain hours when school started, and they didn’t schedule me that way, and they didn’t change the schedule when I asked; they just said they’d notify staff that I'd be late because I would be taking care of some stuff for my daughter. Even if I try to talk to my manager about more flexible timing, I probably couldn't work my 40 hours. I definitely will have to take fewer hours in the future. I don't see any other way at this point. I need to make sure that she logs in to do the work and projects. I can't just leave her hanging because that will make her fall behind.

I am one of the few people in my store that has a full-time position, and I don’t know if asking for fewer hours means I would lose my benefits or my vacation pay. I cannot afford to go from full-time to part-time. The company has not mentioned anything about helping us now that kids are going back to school. And I don’t think they want me to cut my hours because they already were cutting part-timers.

I don’t think we’re getting much support from the company. I had contact with a customer that contracted COVID. I informed the company and never got an answer about how to get tested so I went through my private insurance. Then my daughter tested positive, and she was asymptomatic. I had to quarantine. They refused to pay me because they said if I was asymptomatic, I should go in with my N95 mask. So I was like, you’re telling me to go in, and expose my coworkers, and my customers — most of whom are elderly? So they told me to get my district manager’s approval for a leave of absence, but it would not be paid because I was not sick, it was my child. So I never got paid. But as a health provider, you should care for your employees, and care for your customers.

Krystle, local government employee in Western New York

Age: 35

Child Age: 3

Income: $40,000/year

Childcare costs: $250/week

I’m my daughter’s sole caretaker. Her father lives in another country. At first, my employer had half of us working from home, and the other half in the office for two weeks at a time. So at that point, I had her home with me for two weeks, but then her school closed and her backup daycare closed and her summer program closed. Plan A, B, and C — just done. My parents have preexisting conditions, but they took her. If I didn't have them around, I would be super screwed.

She’d live with them the two weeks I was working at the office, and the two weeks that I worked from home, after being at work, I would have her and we’d “quarantine,” and I wouldn't even let my parents come over. I don’t want to come home and pass it to them. My mom’s friend’s husband died from COVID so it’s super scary. When my daughter lived at their house, she'd be like, I miss Mommy, I want to see Mommy, and we’d FaceTime. And when she lived here, she’d be like, I miss Grandma and Papa. I want to go see them.

My employer actually found that working from home, we were the same or more productive than we were going to work, but there’s a stigma that government workers are lazy. So in June, they called me back in to work 100%. My job is just like, Well, just find a daycare that has open spots, but I don’t know if the one with open spots is reputable! I'm not just gonna send my kid to whatever is available without doing research.

She ended up going back to the place she went to when she was a toddler two to three days a week. It’s $52 a day. It’s out of the way, but the teachers are really nice. The daycare is doing a great job of making sure they wipe everything down and having kids wash their hands frequently. And the staff all wear masks, and it’s up to us if they want the kids to, but their ears are so little, they don't stay on.

My parents take care of her the other days. We’re still being as careful as we can now. She’s been staying there overnight the nights before they watch her because they live 15 miles in the wrong direction from my work, and I start at 8 a.m. So getting her up at 6 a.m. was too tough on her.

She’ll be in pre-K this fall, and we just got word that our school board voted to do 100% remote for the first four to six weeks of school. Only one board member brought up the issue for working parents, and nobody offered solutions. Now I have to scramble and see if her daycare can take her full-time, because my parents are going camping in September and won't be able to take her at all.

There is no winning right now. If you need to work, you're a bad parent, and if you need to stay home with your kid, you're a bad employee. 

There is no winning right now. If you need to work, you're a bad parent, and if you need to stay home with your kid, you're a bad employee. Some parents are going fully remote, but for someone like me, I work full-time. I'm an essential worker. And they stop letting us work from home. So what would you like me to do? What is the solution for that? The teachers unions are saying, Well, we don't feel safe going in. Other parents say, Well, you can send her to a daycare — yes, but I would still be sending her somewhere. Public school is tuition-free, and full-time daycare is $250 per week. That’s $1,000 a month that was not in my budget. It is super messy.

I just wish that all of us parents could do a better job of working together and being nicer to each other. There's always the mommy-shaming, like, you're a terrible person because you're not keeping your kid home. Or you're a terrible person because you're not going to work and making money. I had to delete my Facebook app because I just couldn't take the fighting anymore and the debates about the kids and going back to school. Everybody just wants to push the blame on each other: The workplaces are blaming the school district who is blaming the teacher unions. And nobody wants to take responsibility for anything right now.

Phoebe*, health worker in the Bay Area

Age: 33

Child Age: 8 months

Income: $33/hour

Childcare costs: NA

I had my baby in January. Both myself and my husband are essential workers and I went back to work in June. It's always been the plan that my mom would help take care of the baby. They have daycare programs for essential workers of the city, but I heard staff in some of those daycares aren’t wearing masks, so we didn’t send my little one there.

Honestly, it was a lot of anxiety to come back, because I have to go to the hospital. I feared coming back to work and if I could, I would stay on leave for even longer. When this first broke out, they were saying they had multiple system failure, which is really scary. I'm very glad that my manager actually understands and I have an accommodation to not see COVID patients, but that will expire at the end of September. I just had to have that talk with my husband, like, okay, my accommodation is expiring and I will have to go see COVID patients. My husband said, If you get sick then, like, just isolate and quarantine. We’ve had to face the fact that it will happen.

I would say as an essential worker, you don't want to bring what's at work back home, the disease. That's my biggest concern. And mentally, it's very draining. I know people who aren’t sleeping well anymore. I can still sleep at night so I guess I am coping, but I turn to yummy food when I feel stressed. If I didn’t have a mortgage, I wouldn't come back to work. If my husband could completely provide for everything, I wouldn't risk it.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Kate, animal caregiver in upstate New York

Age: 30

Child Age: 7

Income: $15/hour

Childcare costs: Variable, about a couple of hundred dollars per week

I’m a single mom. Up to now, I've just been cobbling together childcare, getting people to come in and watch my daughter. I lived here for three months when the pandemic hit and just had zero safety net. I left corporate New York City to come take care of the animals, because I believed in animal rescue. So I don't have the same resources that other moms might have — I don't know anybody. My job was my only safety net.

There has been a lot more work since the pandemic, because people are dying and we're having to go rescue animals from caregivers that died of COVID, or other causes. We’ve had to do way more triage and rescue than normal because all the other resources were closed.

My job was not receptive to the idea of any paid time off. They did offer people with school-age children a small stipend of $75 a week for childcare, because [animal] caregiving is just inherently such a low-paid job that if I needed to pay someone full-time to care for my kid, I would be losing money. But that stipend was only until June, and after that, it’s been on me. After taxes, I make $13 an hour, and you can’t get a babysitter for that much. Maybe there's someone I could exploit, but I'm not going to.

So I had family members fly out to take care of my daughter for like a couple weeks at a time. My mom is a professor, and she drove across the country from California to help me keep this job. She was teaching online while watching the kid. But when my daughter’s school starts again, you need someone actively facilitating remote learning. You can't just throw her in front of a computer — she is only going into second grade.

I have to take care of my daughter and you're making me choose between doing this job and my child.

School is going to be on a hybrid schedule. My employer said, Well, we need you to work these days, and I was saying, I have to take care of my daughter and you're making me choose between doing this job and my child. My job was pushing me to put her in a daycare, and I was like, but now you're asking me to put my daughter in like an unsafe situation. If the schools are closed, why would I put her in a daycare? There have just been no good options for any parents and especially parents who have to be at work.

I ended up having to leave my job because it's just been six months of me cobbling together care, or losing so much money to do this work that I loved to do. But it's unsustainable at this point, if they're not going to work with me and give me the same days off as my child. I can't do it. That has been the most disappointing part, I'm like, You are the only people here who can help me keep doing this job.

I was just realizing the only way that anyone in my position — I can't be the only single parent who has an essential job — can do this is if they keep passing the stimulus to keep supplementing incomes. Because whoever watches my kid, I have to pay them. Even my friends and family, if they take time off work to come help, you can’t ask them to do it for free.

But this is what being a caregiver is like. I get it now. I see it with people who have nurses in their homes; it’s just not a valued profession, whether you're taking care of people or animals. This must be why burnout is so high: because you have to care so deeply.

Jenn, auto parts retail employee in Connecticut

Age: 32

Children Ages: 16, 11, 10, 9, and 1

Income: $12/hour

Childcare costs: NA

My 16-year-old daughter has been taking care of her four siblings while we are working. She has taken on the role as parent because we cannot afford a day off. I feel proud of her, and upset at the whole situation, because she shouldn’t have to do this. To compensate her, she has an allowance and we take her to Dollar Tree. She earned this. I can’t save much, but I have to be grateful that she steps up in this crazy time for us.

My spouse and I work in the automotive industry. My spouse works in the morning. I start work at 12 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. We are both managers and ever since the pandemic we've been working double shifts. There was a time my spouse and I worked for three weeks straight because someone in my store caught COVID.

We explain to our kids why we are working so much, and on payday we do something as a family. They at least understand that.

We explain to our kids why we are working so much, and on payday we do something as a family. They at least understand that.

We are scared every day to bring COVID home to our children. All the company did was give us hand sanitizer and masks. Two months later we got glass installed in only two out of five registers. Just last month they sent us cloth masks.

I have been told that I don't need hazard pay because I have a job. That I don't need another stimulus because I have a job. They don't care that we are struggling. They just care that we are open and they have what they need to go home safe. But what about us? Don’t we matter? We didn’t pick if we wanted to be essential. That role was given to us. At least you get to shop, spend some money, and go home and stay safe in your little nest. Not I. I literally have a beard of pimples right now from wearing the mask eight hours a day.

Sara, municipal employee in Northern California

Age: 32

Child Age: 1

Income: $80,000

Childcare costs: $1,200/month

I had only started going back to work a couple of months earlier when the pandemic started. My maternity leave was unpaid and my husband, who is a mailman, had stayed home to help when I started going back to work part-time, so we had both not been working before the pandemic happened and we were trying to dig ourselves out of that hole.

At first, it was super busy at work; no one was on the roads, so they ramped everything up. And my husband obviously has been super busy this whole time because everyone is ordering things online. He started working 12- to 15-hour days every day when this whole thing started. He had a hard time in the beginning because people would come up close to him and try to talk when he’d drive up in the truck, because they weren’t seeing other humans and were starved of conversation and human interaction. I was able to work from home in the beginning, and I did it for three months, but I wasn’t getting enough work done.

I was trying to prove I could still do my job well after having a baby. We’re told for so long you can have a career and a child, but it’s hard to put 100% of yourself into both. So there is internal pressure, but I have been the primary breadwinner in our family for a while, and I have to make sure we can pay the bills.

I was trying to have Zoom meetings all the time with the baby crying. It was a lot of feeling like I was overextended, but not being a good parent and not being a good employee and it was hard to feel like I could accomplish anything. I have a good relationship with everyone at work, but it always felt like, I know I am not the most convenient person to be around right now, but I need to have input so I am just going to let the other person speak for me because I am going to be muted this whole call. My workplace was as supportive as it could be, but I wasn’t getting everything done and it was stressful. We had a round of layoffs for financial reasons, so you want to prove that you’re valuable.

I kind of lie to myself and pretend that I am okay with it and feel she is safe.

In June, I was called back into my office full-time so we sent my daughter back into the daycare she had been in for a month in February before this all started. I thought about getting a nanny, but financially, we couldn’t afford it. So I tried to justify to myself that daycare was safer anyway because at least they’re sanitizing everything. Because the daycare was open the whole time, they had their protocols in place, but I kind of lie to myself and pretend that I am okay with it and feel she is safe. But it’s a constant worry: that she could be exposed today. And COVID was really ramping up when I went back to work.

There are fewer kids at the daycare now than before the pandemic; all the staff have to wear masks all the time; there’s hand sanitizer everywhere; things have to be washed every hour. We can have one parent in the classroom at a time, and I am still nursing, so I go in every day at lunch and nurse her in the back area where the cribs are where there’s never anyone around.

Day to day, I just tell myself that it’s okay, but it’s always in the back of my mind: Why am I prioritizing money and having a job when I could keep her home and not expose her? But even then, my husband would expose her so there’s a general fear of exposure all the time. I have to pretend I don’t feel bad.

I had a really bad work week where I was like, Why am I killing myself at this job? I am making money to pay for someone else to raise my kid — in a pandemic. I have little moments where I spiral like that. But I try to be positive. I grew up with working parents and I appreciated the work ethic I saw in them and I’ve always wanted to be a working mom. But I also just need to make sure we can pay rent and buy groceries. ●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Parenting Week series, about how parenting has changed during the pandemic.

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