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Finding Affordable and Safe Child Care for Parents Working the “Third Shift”

helenI was excited when NWLC had the opportunity to partner with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United on an important report about the child care challenges facing workers who work the night shift, with a special focus on restaurant workers. Earlier this week, I was able to participate in a day long convening where experts and advocates came together to discuss strategies for addressing these challenges.

There are many different occupations where working the night shift is often necessary, including security personnel, medical workers, and retail workers, but the restaurant industry is one of the few late-night industries where workers must depend on tips to for most of their wages.

Servers and hosts at restaurants rely on tips for the bulk of their income. In all but seven states, these workers are paid subminimum wage. The national tipped minimum wage is $2.13 per hour–just enough to cover taxes. And, as anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows, the best times for tips are evenings–specifically week-end evenings, on the prime Friday and Saturday night shifts.

Parents make up a large number of restaurant workers. Out of the 13.5 million restaurant workers in the United States, there are nearly 3.5 million restaurant workers who are also parents. One million of those are single mothers. Most female restaurant workers, especially single mothers, lack economic security.

But few child care options are available during evenings and weekends — what we call “non-traditional” work hours – and the low incomes of tipped restaurant workers make it difficult for them to afford what care is available. As a result, the many restaurant workers who are parents face tough choices about their child care arrangements during these times if they do not want to forego the most profitable shifts. And, not surprisingly, this constant struggle between child care and work can have the effect of driving parents out of the restaurant business.

So how can policy makers make child care more accessible for restaurant workers?

Eliminate the subminimum wage.

In restaurants where workers earn a base salary that is higher than the minimum wage, there is less pressure to take late night shifts on weekends to earn enough money to make ends meet. This would also address many other problems that women experience in the restaurant industry, such as sexual harassment and discrimination.

Respond to the growing need for nightcare.

There are millions of families, not just in the restaurant industry, who need affordable and reliable nightcare that provides a healthy and safe environment for their children while they work. Our policymakers need to listen to the voices of parents who struggle to find affordable and high quality child care. New investments to address working families’ struggles to afford high quality child care, must ensure that a variety of child care options are available to parents. Safe, reliable, and high quality child care during the hours that they need it make it easier for working parents to find and keep jobs (or attend school, or improve their skills and training).

Support interventions that encourage the restaurant industry to support expanding nightcare.

Restaurant workers themselves can encourage nightcare and help other restaurant workers find reliable child care. Several former restaurant workers in the report had started to offer nightcare themselves, remembering their own difficulty finding care. One employer in the report suggested that employers should consider providing child care for employees; the employer believed it would be cost-effective if several restaurants collaborated. There needs to be more support for innovations like these.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.