America's new child care crisis: parents' hours

Last Updated Jul 17, 2015 4:13 PM EDT

American employers are increasingly asking employees to work odd hours, leading to one major casualty: children.

More than one out of five parents with children under the age of 13 are working nonstandard schedules, according to a study from the centrist think tank Urban Institute. Among low-income families, that jumps to almost one-third of workers with young children, leading to instability for both parents and children, the report found.

The research comes on the heels of the proliferation of on-demand scheduling by many low-wage employers, such as retailers and fast-food companies. At least 17 percent of the U.S. workforce is coping with an unstable schedule, such as irregular or on-call hours or rotating shifts, the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute found earlier this year. Corporations have turned to such scheduling, often done with the help of sophisticated software programs, to reduce costs, but irregular hours makes it difficult on workers to plan financially or handle child care.

"These mothers need child care at a variety of hours, not only evening and nights," the report said. "This reflects the fact that about half of all nonstandard workers work irregular schedules, which could include day time hours. Nonstandard schedule mothers patch together multiple types of care, including group care, relative care, and other parent care to meet their child care needs."

Scrambling for last-minute child care when an employer changes a worker's hours can be stressful, and it can also hurt a worker's ability to get ahead if they can't find someone to watch their children. Workers making less than $22,500 annually are more likely to suffer from unpredictable hours, the EPI had found.

The issue, highlighted in a The New York Times profile last summer of a barista and single mother whose life had become a "chronic crisis" due to her fluctuating schedule and low pay. She at times would work until 11 p.m., only to have to show up for work the next day at 4 a.m.

So who takes care of the kids when parents are called to work at unexpected hours? Parents are more likely to rely on many types of child care to fill the gap, such as asking relatives and friends for help. Low-income workers are less likely to use group care because it tends to be more expensive. Child care centers also typically don't offer evening and weekend hours that workers with irregular hours require.

While some parents choose these types of schedules, especially if it allows them to "tag team" on child care, irregular hours are most often not a result of choice, but simply because the workers have lack other employment opportunities, the study found.

"Low-income families bear the brunt of nonstandard work and its consequences," the study noted. "Studies have found that working nonstandard hours has detrimental effects on workers' health and children's wellbeing."