I woke up to an email from my 11-month-old daughter’s day care to inform me that even though there is a snowstorm heading toward Philly, the day care will open in the morning. However, the email directed me to stay tuned for updates because the day care is likely to close around noon as the storm intensifies. Cue the anxiety: Just two days before, on Presidents’ Day, I used a personal day because her day care was closed. Now I need to ask for time off again. I also have a lot of work to do and the chances of me being productive while making sure that baby Mara doesn’t try to put a finger in an electric socket or eats the cat’s food are unlikely.
For my wife and me, snow days are a nuisance. My wife is a physician, so leaving work during the day while patients are waiting is near-impossible. I, on the other hand, have the privilege of being able to occasionally work from home. I also have a supportive and understanding boss. Mara’s grandparents live nearby and are willing to help whenever they can. The worst-case scenario for us is scrambling to find a last-minute babysitter, which we are blessed to be able to afford.
And yet, even under these accommodating circumstances, including a day care that rarely closes, it is hard to convey the amount of stress that a snow day can introduce to our lives.
Your morning becomes a complicated military operation with a million moving parts that all need to magically fit together before day care closes — texts with my wife, the grandparents, apology email to the boss, searching for a babysitter, figuring out which work meetings to cancel and which tasks can be delayed, lying to yourself that maybe the baby will, for the first time ever, take a four-hour nap and you will be able to be super-productive at home, being upset that you are going to lose a precious day off, and praying that maybe it magically won’t snow and the day care will stay open.
How do people who don’t have all the privileges that we have even begin to juggle all this on a snow day?
One of the biggest privileges I have is a salaried job with benefits, which means I have the ability to take a day off without losing pay. That is critical because day care is really expensive. According to a 2017 study conducted by the child-care website care.com and the real estate website Zillow, the average cost of day care for a single toddler in Philadelphia is $323 a week — close to $17,000 for the year. To put that figure in perspective, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom is $15,192. After day care and housing, even a solidly middle-class family isn’t left with much wiggle room. Now consider that about 400,000 Philadelphians live in households that make less than $19,700 a year.
If you are one of the many working poor with children in Philadelphia, nearly your entire salary might go toward child care — paying for a day of day care without getting paid for that day isn’t a luxury they can afford.
"Unlike those of us who are salaried, parents who work in the service sector don’t often get a paid day off when schools and day cares are closed due to weather,” Kati Sipp, a labor activist and consultant who works with economic justice and immigrant rights groups, told the Inquirer. “Those parents are forced to make the difficult choice to either skip a shift and lose a day’s pay, or to leave their young children with an older sibling, family member, or neighbor.”
Gentrification doesn’t make things any easier. When longtime residents are forced out of their close-knit communities because of the cost of housing increasing rapidly, it makes it even more difficult to find an informal alternative to day care — like asking a neighbor to pick up your child.
And let’s not forget that depending on their contract, day-care workers might not be compensated for a snow day either.
So what’s the solution?
Aside from chanting “drill, baby, drill” in the hope that global temperatures rise enough, fast enough, to prevent snow days — and a future on this planet for my daughter — there are no easy solutions for working parents when weather intervenes in their child-care plan.
One improvement would be to reduce the cost of day care with the eventual goal of free universal access to child care. By reducing the financial burden of child care on families, mainly families living in poverty, the blow of a day without pay is softened. It is also a gender-equity issue — studies show that access to affordable child care increases women’s labor-force participation. Another solution is to demand that employers compensate workers when they cancel a shift last minute due to a weather-related cancellation of child care — mainly if that child care is the School District of Philadelphia. If a government entity forces parents to take time off from work last minute, it should also force employers to not penalize the workers.