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Overtime: How The COVID Crunch in Child Care Uprooted Sherry Pratt’s Career

Sherry Pratt

Since she was 19, Sherry Pratt easily hopped from one job to the next. She’s worked in marketing and printing, and her flexibility is a point of pride.

Now 47, her career, she says, “was a part of who I was.” She recalls how people looked to her “as that professional if they had a question on layout, design, printing or marketing.”

But Pratt lost her job in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit, and it became clear pretty quickly that returning to the workforce was not possible. 

But Pratt lost her job in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit, and it became clear pretty quickly that returning to the workforce was not possible. 

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She faced several barriers in her search for employment. The lack of available jobs in her field, her lack of a college degree and her age have all presented challenges. But childcare was the biggest hurdle. 

Pratt, of Belmont, is a mother of three. Her two oldest kids are independent, but Mya, her youngest, requires a lot of care. Mya is 18 and autistic, with developmental and cognitive delays. She needs help doing everything from keeping herself fed to using the bathroom.

When Mya’s school closed down during the pandemic, Pratt became Mya’s everything: her teacher, physical therapist, occupational therapist and speech therapist. Pratt also looks after her eight-month-old granddaughter Bailey, while Bailey’s mother is at work.

“It's pretty much full time, because if I did not, my daughter would also be unemployed,” she says. 

Now, as COVID-19 cases are slowing down, Mya’s school is open more consistently, and Pratt can search for a new job while her husband picks up extra hours at a local warehouse.

But even with unemployment running at around 3 percent in New Hampshire, it hasn’t been easy.

Her old job fit her schedule — she could be home by the time Mya got off the bus at 2 pm. Although the pandemic made work arrangements more flexible for some, Pratt says many of the jobs she’s seen aren’t flexible enough to allow her to do that. And they don’t pay enough for Pratt to hire someone who can meet Maya’s needs.  

“It’s a wage issue for people,” Pratt says. “How can you pay for daycare, if you get paid $12-15 dollars an hour, and have enough left over?” 

Pratt has a stipend from Lakes Region Community Services to help her find care for Mya, but it only offers $15 an hour, for 10 hours a week, and the agency hasn’t found anyone yet. Workers say a workforce shortage in the childcare industry is making it especially tricky to find care right now. And Pratt and her family can’t afford to pay more right now, 

Pratt says other parents have told her they can’t find childcare or can’t afford the care they can find. These conditions have left her, and many other parents in the state, in a nearly impossible situation.

It costs about $13,000 a year for an infant to get a spot at a licensed day-care center in New Hampshire, according to data from Child Care Aware of America. That figure is roughly 12 percent of the median household income with two earners in New Hampshire, and over 40 percent of annual income for a single-parent household. 

Around 40 percent of children under school age who need licensed care can’t get it because there are not enough spots, according to a recent report by the National Center on Children in Poverty and a consultant, Econsult Solutions. 

But taking care of Bailey and Mya, and hearing from other parents that they too, need childcare, gave Pratt an idea. She wants to take care of infants Bailey’s age in her home. 

She thinks she might be able to tap into the demand for smaller, more flexible facilities, a demand that has only grown during the pandemic. 

But it's taken a lot of acceptance to realize how much she’s already changed. 

She saw herself continuing in the field she’s worked in since she was a teenager. Maybe she’d become a manager one day. That dream feels far away now.

“I will probably never get back to what I used to do before, and I will have to ... completely change up what I need to do. So this has been life altering for me and my family,” she says.

She also says being unemployed for so long has put her out of touch with friends that have continued to work through the pandemic. They don’t seem to understand why she hasn’t been able to find a job, she says. 

She’s in a Facebook group for unemployed people in New Hampshire, and she says she’s hurt by the rhetoric she sometimes hears, that people who are unemployed are lazy, or living off government money. 

“For somebody to sit there at their keyboard and say, ‘Oh, there's plenty of jobs out there, just go get it’ — it’s defeating,” she says. “It’s frustrating.” 

Pratt has also had to let go of replacing her salary, a process that’s caused a lot of worry. She used to make about $600 in every paycheck, and she didn’t know how she’d replace it.

“You need to move on and we’ll be OK to figure out what the next step is,” she says her husband told her. She’s accepted that she might not be able to make the same amount of money again with her childcare venture. 

But she’s also tired of feeling like the pandemic has taken control of her life, and she’s found so much joy taking care of her granddaughter. So while it might not be the path she saw for herself, she’s ready to forge a new one.

Sherry Pratt is one of six women NHPR will follow as part of Overtime. And we want you to add your voice. How are you managing the needs of caregiving and work during the pandemic? What is changing for you as the pandemic fades?

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