School snow days a challenge for low-income working parents

Bad weather can mean a scramble for transportation and child care – and put some parents’ jobs at risk

School closures are a challenge for parents, children and day care providers. In Morrisville, Pa., a woman and child make their way through the early morning snow.
Mel Evans/AP

On television, snow days are all fun and frolic — nature’s gift of a break from school, a chance for parents to build igloos with their kids. But for working families, especially single parents or hourly wage earners without paid time off, snow days can bring hardship.

Thousands of schools and colleges were closed during the latest winter storm to hit the South, mid-Atlantic and Northeast, from Atlanta to East Orange, N.J., to Bridgeport, Conn.

In New York City, over the objections of the local teachers’ union, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to keep schools open, citing the 1.1 million children whose “parents have to go to work … and need a safe option for their kids.”

On Thursday morning, pelted by heavy, diagonal snow, parents and kids in marshmallow coats arrived on foot and by taxi and subway at Public School 3 in Manhattan’s West Village. Veronica Washington, 33, a single parent and teacher at the school, was relieved to see her students, some of whom had lost power in their apartments.

“(Being a single parent) changes the equation, because even in the bad weather, I can’t stay home,” Washington said. “If my child is sick, I can’t stay home. There are some parents who have gone through hell and high water to get here.” She and her 6-year-old had experienced their own challenges navigating subway delays.

When schools close for the day, working parents must make quick decisions — at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. It’s not too bad for those able to telecommute, use flex hours or bring their kids to work; others may draw on vacation hours or sick days. Many workers, however, lack such benefits.

“The problem is obviously greatest for those who don’t have any personal or sick days. They don’t get paid if they can’t get to work,” said Jessica Sager, mother of an 8-year-old daughter and executive director of All Our Kin, a Connecticut group that trains and supports in-home child care providers.

In 2012, 44 percent of full-time workers had paid personal leave; only 16 percent of part-timers enjoyed the same. “Low-wage workers are the least likely to have these options,” said Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the City University of New York. “The choice is not just giving up a day’s pay, but even risking your job, especially in a winter like this. Professionals and managers typically have some form of paid time off for these situations and have more resources to buy their way out of these problems."

Yet, according to Alex, a 44-year-old attorney and single mom, even high-paying jobs can be inflexible. (She asked that her last name not be included for fear of retaliation from her employer.)

"If you have two working parents, at least you do have the choice: 'Will one of us stay home, will none of us stay home?' I really don’t have a backup, short of making a sacrifice at work or putting myself in a bad position at work," she said.

Snow days highlight the critical role of neighborhood child care in the lives of working families. In Newark, N.J., in-home providers like Shawanda Jones-Velez, 42, and Ida Jackson, 60, stretch their hours to help parents looking for jobs or working low-wage shifts in hospitals and factories. While day care workers themselves earn little income — a source of bonding between parents and providers — Jones-Velez and Jackson's child care union, Local 1037 of the Communications Workers of America, just ratified a new contract for a slight increase in pay.

“In the last two weeks, with snow back to back, some parents had to bring their children to me,” Jones-Velez said. “One is a single parent, and her workplace was open regardless, so she had to go in.”

“I tell them, ‘Yeah, sure, bring the kids here!’” Jackson said. “I know parents have to go to work, and I don’t want them to lose their jobs.”

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