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Right now, our doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, hospital janitorial and food service staff, postal workers, lab techs, first responders, military personnel and other critical workers are providing essential services necessary for our community to overcome COVID-19. And, in addition to their important role in our emergency response, many of them are also worrying about who will care for their children during their working hours.

Stories from the frontline are those of nurses watching one another’s children in between shifts. Of first responders having their children wait in air-conditioned cars when they’re called to an emergency. Of grocery store workers ending overtime shifts only to go home to manage their children’s daily learning.

In my conversations with hospital administrators and health care providers — both public and private — they say that right now, upward of half their staff find it challenging to make it to work because they lack adequate child care for their families. At a time when our health care system is already overburdened, this drain on capacity is a serious problem.

And it’s not just our health care system. Child care has long been recognized as a critical readiness issue by the military. A 2007 RAND study found that high-quality child care is both a readiness and a retention issue for our military, a population that is only further overburdened now with COVID-19 infections.

On the campaign trail, child care is, perhaps surprisingly, the top issue I hear from military families. The same goes for our first responders, who, by virtue of their irregular shift scheduling, already have a harder time finding child care that meets their needs.

COVID-19 has exposed these system failures, but it has by no means created them. Even before COVID-19, families across our region were struggling to access child care. In San Diego, child care is as expensive as — and often more expensive than — college tuition.

Of particular concern are the large gaps in San Diego County between the need and availability of child care, especially for working parents. Across the county, nearly 190,000 children under 12 don’t have an available child care spot or a stay-at-home parent to care for them. In fact, 66 percent of local families with young kids live in areas where care is not regularly available.

And worst of all, a recent study shows that subsidized child care was unavailable for 91 percent of San Diego County infants and toddlers who lived in eligible families. Partially as a result of our lack of accessible and affordable child care, San Diego has the second lowest female participation rate in the workforce among major American cities. Existing gaps in our child care sector cost the U.S. economy nearly $57 billion each year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue.

Now add on the current crisis, and things look dire fast. Those workers San Diego desperately needs right now to keep essential services going, and who are being stretched the most by this crisis, were already the least likely to have access to child care. Even before COVID-19, first responder, health care, hospitality and retail workers — with unpredictable or non-standard work schedules — had very few options for licensed child care.

The $3.5 billion allocated for child care nationwide in the CARES Act and the $100 million statewide allocated by Gov. Gavin Newsom is a good start, but it isn’t enough. Right now, we must make sure that every essential worker has the child care that they need so they don’t have to worry about their families while they are taking care of ours. But as we get through this pandemic, and in preparation for whatever is to come, the next call to action is making sure that all families have access to high-quality, affordable child care.

That’s why Congress must include an investment of $50 billion to protect the child care sector in the next bill. And locally, the county and city of San Diego need to step up.

We will never be able to fully re-open our economy, or recover from this crisis, if we don’t have a child care infrastructure in place to enable parents to go back to work. A well-resourced, equitable child care system is essential for our economic recovery.

We owe it to our essential workers, and all Americans, to do nothing less.

Sara Jacobs is a candidate for Congress in California’s 53rd Congressional District. She also serves as founder and chair of San Diego for Every Child.

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