By Kai Li Tan May 21, 2020 Updated: May 21, 2020 3:12 p.m.Registered nurse Margaret Padernal, left, and respiratory therapist Rena Boutte carry balloons they were given as they left work on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 at CHI St. Luke’s Health – Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston. In honor of National Nurses Week and kicking off on National Nurses Day, Party City surprised the hospital’s night shift nurses as they got off work.Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
Childcare centers are deemed an essential service during a pandemic for obvious reasons, so that essential and frontline workers who have young children can focus on tackling an outbreak without worrying about their families, and so they can continue to work and serve their community. It is baffling that without warning, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) permanently closed its 40-year standing, high-quality Child Development Center in Houston (UTCDC), which served parents working on the front lines prior to its closure, in the middle of a pandemic. Parents were left scrambling for alternative childcare options while UTCDC staff were immediately unemployed. While the decision to permanently shut down UTCDC may not affect the UTHealth leadership at large, it has far and wide implications toward the working families, especially women, at UTHealth and the Texas Medical Center, as well as the image and values UTHealth leadership wishes to project to its employees.
UTCDC was one of only two onsite childcare centers in the Texas Medical Center, with a collective capacity to care for 260 children. The medical center boasts that it is the largest medical center in the world and has more than 106,000 employees, many of whom are healthcare workers and medical research scientists. But 260 childcare spaces for over 100,000 employees is far from sufficient. Despite the demand, UTHealth abruptly closed the UTCDC, without conferring with the parents and staff or providing a reason. More than half of the parents are working on the frontlines, while the rest are UTHealth and TMC medical and research employees, who are currently being asked to report back to work as Houston begins to reopen. Parents are faced with a paramount question; how are their children going to be taken care of? Quality and affordable childcare options were already scarce pre-pandemic, and full time babysitters are expensive and not a viable long-term option.
Many parents may opt for a difficult decision, which is for one parent to drop out of the workforce to fully care for their children. Although our society is achieving gender parity, mothers typically still take up most of the family and childcare responsibilities, and a majority of working mothers will be the ones trading their paycheck for the care of their children in the midst of a pandemic.
How will this situation apply to a medical institute or hospital? As reported by the New York Times, 77 percent of health-care workers are women. This is the workforce we currently are in dire need of to fight the COVID-19 crisis. With the closure of UTCDC, UTHealth leadership has created a difficult choice for its frontline parents: My child or my job? While the medical institute appeared to launch an all-out fight with the common enemy, COVID-19, its leadership decided to quietly undermine its workforce, leaving many parents, especially mothers, without a choice but to give up their battle to fight the pandemic to care for their children. Who will be the ultimate victim of this decision as our medical workforce dwindles due to a lack of childcare during a pandemic? Our community at large.
The closure of the UTCDC not only disproportionately impacts women in the medical and health professions, it has left the UTCDC staff, who are 97 percent female, without employment. The UTCDC staff made an average of $12 per hour, according to a UTCDC staff. For the ease of comparison, the decision to shut down UTCDC was made by top UTHealth executives, 70 percent of whom are male and the top two UT decision makers are paid an average of a whopping $506 per hour, based on calculations from numbers obtained from govsalaries.com. One hour of their pay would cover an hour of the entire UTCDC staff’s pay. This is a testament to the priorities of the UTHealth leadership.
We are about to have a childcare crisis on our hands, and women will be the ones hit hardest and forced to make tough decisions about their careers. As more institutions and corporations consider closing their on-site childcare facilities we implore them to think of the larger implications of their decisions and whether they want to contribute to the gender gap in this country.
Tan is a parent affected by the closure and a researcher with a PhD in developmental biology in the Texas Medical Center. This op-ed reflects the views of UTCDC parents.
Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: May 23, 2020)
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