The Complex Relationship Between Changing Work Schedules, Child Care, and Child Well-Being

Sep 25, 2019


With the rise of telework, on-demand scheduling apps, and the gig economy, more workers find themselves earning their paychecks in the early morning, at night, or on weekends, with hours that might change on a frequent basis. A growing segment of the workforce is already familiar with the challenge of finding safe and high quality child care that accommodates work hours outside the traditional nine to five, Monday through Friday schedule, but it still is a relatively new area of public policy research.

On this episode of On the Evidence, we talk about a report that looks at the complicated relationships among nonstandard or changing work schedules, the availability of child care for those schedules, and child well-being. Our guests are Angela Rachidi and Russell Sykes, who coauthored the report for Mathematica, the American Public Human Services Association, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Click here to listen to the full interview. You can also read edited excerpts of the interview in the following transcript.

How prevalent is nonstandard work, especially among working parents?

Rachidi: We know from a dated survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that roughly 20 percent of workers have a nonstandard work schedule, which typically means weekends, evenings, overnight, those kinds of schedules. We know from some other research that [nonstandard schedules are] more prevalent among low-wage workers or low-skill workers. There are some survey data to suggest that as many as 50 percent of low-wage workers work these nonstandard schedules. And because we were interested in child care, we also looked at the research on parents and found that roughly 20 percent of parents’ work hours outside of regular schedules.

We all have a sense that the economy is changing a little bit, and we do know that the sectors that are growing now, such as health care or retail, have nonstandard work schedules. So we do know that it’s fairly prevalent, and we know that it’s likely to get even more prevalent as time goes on.

What was your approach to studying the relationships among work schedules, child care, and child health and well-being?

Rachidi: I analyzed the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being survey data, which was a survey started in the late 1990s that oversampled unmarried births in public hospitals in about 18 cities. It tracked these children and their mothers over an extended period of time. The benefit of the survey is that they did time-diary data from the time of the birth of each child during a three-year in-home assessment. (We were looking through age 3 of the child.) It asked about every job that the mothers had, the work schedule they had, the type of job, as well as the child care arrangements that they were using during those jobs.

I was able to to categorize each mom and mom-child combination according to what type of work schedules they were employed in early in the child’s life, which resulted in three groups: standard schedule, nonstandard schedule, or moms who worked a combination of both. The third category didn’t mean that they worked both at the same time, but that in the age 0-to-3 time period, they had worked both types of schedules.

What we found is that the moms who were working both types of schedules had more child care instability than the moms who worked a standard schedule only or a nonstandard schedule only. We also found that the instability created by changing or transitioning from these work schedules did have implications for their child care settings that then ultimately had some negative outcomes on children in terms of externalizing behavior.

Were you surprised to find that working nonstandard hours only wasn’t associated with negative outcomes for the children?

Rachidi: There is a body of research to suggest that workers with these schedules have worse health outcomes and also to suggest that children of these workers have worse outcomes, so I was expecting to find a relationship between nonstandard work schedules and poor child outcomes. But once I went back and thought about it, there’s no reason to believe that an evening work schedule, in and of itself, would lead to any more instability than a day-time schedule. What does make sense is that if that schedule is changing, that would then lead to different child care settings, which [would lead to] instability.

When I dug into the data a little bit more, the data started to reveal that the providers that were being used by parents working only nonstandard schedules were family, friends, and neighbors. It was mostly grandparents, and those grandparents probably did provide stability for these kids.

What did you learn from surveying state child care administrators about child care assistance for parents with nonstandard and changing work schedules?

Rachidi: We asked about changes that were made to the federal subsidy program in 2014 and how those changes were affecting working parents with nonstandard hours. What we largely found was that the state child care administrators felt that the law didn’t really address the needs of nonstandard-hour workers one way or the other. We also learned through the survey that states were using some strategies to try to increase access to care for these nonstandard-hour working parents, such as allowing parents to use subsidies while [their children] were sleeping so that they could work at night, or providing a higher reimbursement to providers who offer off-hour care.

You also followed up with 13 administrators for in-depth interviews. What did they tell you?

Sykes: The states that recognize that [child care access for nonstandard-hour workers] was going to be a problem—and likely a growing problem as the economy shifts more toward this kind of work—were so caught up in implementing major provisions in the general child care block grant in 2014 that it became an afterthought.

Rachidi: We also learned that they acknowledged the system isn’t set up well for nonstandard-hour working parents. But they didn’t know the true extent of the demand for that kind of care in the subsidy system, nor did they know how they could meet the demand.

What are your recommendations to policymakers who want to mitigate any negative effects of work schedules on children’s health?

Sykes: We recommend a number of potential strategies to explore. For example, states could build data infrastructure to identify the need for and use of nonstandard-hour child care. If they learn that there is an unmet need, they have several options, such as increasing rates to providers so that they offer nonstandard-hour care. They could also investigate the extent to which new regulations and requirements have caused a decline in subsidized, license-exempt and informal child care providers across states, and revisit those rules with nonstandard-hour child care in mind. Policymakers should also consider using refundable income tax credits to increase stability and flexibility for working parents with nonstandard hours.

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Show Notes:

Rachidi, Angela, Russell Sykes, Kerry Dsjardins, and Julius Cesar Chaidez. “The New Economy and Child Care: Nonstandard-Hour Work, Child Care, and Child Health and Well-Being.” Princeton, NJ: Mathematica and American Public Human Services Association, May 15, 2019.

Mathematica. “Changing Work Schedules Linked to Child Care Instability and Problems for Children’s Health and Well-Being.” July 31, 2019. Available at https://www.mathematica.org/news/changing-work-schedules-linked-to-child-care-instability. Accessed September 23, 2019.

Rachidi, Angela. “Children’s Health Influenced by Parents’ Work Schedules and Child Care Transitions.” Evidence in Action blog, August 8, 2019. Available at https://www.mathematica.org/commentary/childrens-health-influenced-by-parents-work-schedules-and-child-care-transitions. Accessed September, 23, 2019. 

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The opinions expressed on the Evidence in Action blog are those of the author(s).