Editor's note: This story has been updated with a new statement from the Texas Workforce Commission saying it's reevaluating certain rules for unemployment benefits, and details on federal child care policy.
Restaurant servers, retail cashiers and movie theater concession workers in Texas could be called back to work as soon as Friday, in the first phase of the state's emergence from a coronavirus shelter-at-home order.
But parents working in those industries who have young children will be turned away from licensed child care centers, which remain open only for children of essential workers such as grocery clerks and nurses. And public and private schools across the state are closed for all students through the end of the school year.
As Republican state leaders move to reenergize the economy, already a controversial decision, they are forcing some parents into a near-impossible choice: find a place to leave your child or risk losing your source of income. Under the state's current rules, Texans who choose not to go to work when their business reopens will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.
“Public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker under the Governor’s executive order,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, in a statement. “Just because a business is now open does not necessarily mean that it is considered ‘essential.’”
But the Texas Workforce Commission has since said in a follow-up statement that it is considering case-by-case waivers that would allow some people to continue receiving unemployment benefits even if they choose not to return to a reopened business.
"Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits," the statement said. "Recognizing this, extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration the governor’s direction towards reopening the economy."
Employees of some businesses who lack child care due to COVID-19 may be eligible for paid leave under a new federal policy that went into effect in April.
The gap in services pushes low-wage families toward unregulated, potentially dangerous child care options, said Cathy McHorse, a member of Austin and Travis County's child care task force. "As an advocate, I feel like we're trying to reopen our economy on the backs of our most marginalized low-wage workers in those industries, and we know our child care providers are also some of the most low-wage workers in the state."
In late March, when Gov. Greg Abbott restricted child care centers to serving children of essential workers, many parents had already decided to keep their children at home, worried about the health risks. But some found that decision more like a forced hand than a clear choice.
Laurisa Williby lost all of her clients as a traveling swimming instructor for kids with autism as coronavirus shutdowns stretched through the spring. She used to charge between $35 and $55 per hour, depending on the package, and supplement that income by driving for Uber or Lyft.
Her son Preston, who is 5 and has autism, attended half-day pre-K at Spring Independent School District and went to a nearby child care center for the rest of the day while she was at work. Now, schools are closed through the end of the year, and no child care center will take Preston or his 6-year-old sister, Allie.
Williby is having trouble finding an aide to come to the house and take care of her son, which should be subsidized by Medicaid. She decided against taking Preston, who is throwing tantrums more regularly without a stable schedule, while she runs deliveries.
“I wouldn’t even risk trying to do even Uber Eats with him, because the last thing you need to do is deliver food and he’s having a meltdown and you’re wondering if they’re going to turn you in and you’ll lose your Uber Eats job,” she said.
Texas created a website to connect health care and grocery store workers to regulated child care centers and is helping them cover the costs. But the website is little help to parents like Williby, who is not considered an essential worker.
Gamez suggested parents in her situation check the state’s website to connect with in-home nannies or babysitters, who are not state-vetted and are potentially unaffordable.
Meanwhile, many child care centers have been struggling to make money. Some local workforce boards have moved slowly to sign up essential workers for child care subsidies, meaning demand has varied across the state, said Stephanie Rubin, chief executive officer of Texans Care for Children.
And parents are worried about the safety of leaving their children in a group setting, she said, although child care centers are required to adhere to strict safety standards.
Our Savior Lutheran Church in small Granbury decided to close its licensed Cross Town Preschool in late March, worried about children catching or spreading the COVID-19 disease.
Mary Strickland, the licensed child care program's director, counts herself lucky that she and 10 other employees received paychecks throughout the closure. She's preparing to open back up next Monday, since coronavirus cases in the area have "flatlined" — and will only accept children of essential workers, in line with state regulations.
Just 18 of about 50 children will return, so Cross Town will lose money, especially if all employees continue to work. Some parents who are working as waitresses or in retail have told Strickland they are using vacation time, taking turns with co-parents or even bringing their kids to work.
"There's going to be a pocket of people who are kind of left out," Strickland said. "In order for us to stay open and keep our license, I have to follow what Gov. Abbott is mandating right now."
Not all child care centers will survive the pandemic. Demand for safe, affordable child care programs might not increase quickly enough to save businesses that were already faltering. Already 29% of licensed and registered child care operations have closed due to COVID-19, according to an informal state survey, and some may not reopen.
“That’s painful, but it’s our job to make sure there are quality child care spots for the need that we have,” said Kara Waddell, president of the nonprofit Child Care Associates, who is leading a Tarrant County child care task force. "Child care is being impacted much more severely than some other businesses."
Williby has been borrowing money from family members and using food stamps to support her children. Two weeks ago, she received a letter from her landlord threatening legal action for unpaid rent, though eviction proceedings are now halted statewide through May 18.
She has thought about posting an ad online to take on a few children whose parents have to work. But she's worried they might not feel comfortable leaving their children with her autistic child. And she is terrified of being responsible for their children, or hers, getting sick.
Meanwhile, the utility bills are piling up, and her car needs expensive repairs.
"My next deal is to start rationing out stuff and not eat as much. You don't need that much to eat to survive," she said.