For Working Parents, Spring Break Is No Vacation

Mar 28, 2016

Both Wanda Gomez’s sons thought the warm weather made it clear where they needed to spend a balmy afternoon last week.“They said, today’s a pool day, but like, we cannot go to pool, because...I have to work,” Gomez says. Such is spring break for a working single mother.

Gomez does voter registration work for The New Florida Majority and she brings her sons with her on the job. Today, Jose and Omar are killing time on the swing set at Roberto Clemente Park in Wynwood, the 5-year-old i Omar twisting the swing in knots until he spins himself dizzy.

Their mother is around the corner registering people to vote outside a grocery store. This is how it goes over Christmas and all summer long, Gomez says. “It’s more difficult when they start, ‘Mommy, I’m hungry, Mommy, I’m tired, Mommy, I’m thirsty.’ Like yesterday—I’m working six hours now. By the three hours, they wanted to go home,” she says. Nevertheless, Gomez says this is the best arrangement she’s been able to find: campaign work with a flexible schedule and no fixed location.

Wanda Gomez registers voters outside a grocery store during her sons' spring break. Her sons say, 'Today is a pool day,' Gomez says, "but I have to work."
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN News

Parents who can’t afford child care during school breaks rely on a patchwork of favors from relatives and workarounds like ‘tag-teaming,’ where one spouse works early and the other works late. Some cities like Opa-locka and North Miami offer low-cost day camps.

Gomez says many of her friends are worse off than she is. “Most of them have to leave their kids in the house by themselves. I know that, but they’re not going to say that,” she says, fearing that it could bring repercussions from the Department of Children and Families.

According to Joan Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, “Often, in low-income families, the choice is between leaving your kids home alone or getting fired, becoming homeless and losing your kids. Which would you do?”

“The schools are still designed around the implicit assumption that there is a mother at home,” Williams says. She argues that most American workplaces, too, are set up for employees who have somebody to take care of their children. “And who does that describe? It describes the dad of the 1950s,” she says.”

According to a national study by the Families and Work Institute, fewer than one in 10 American companies offer some form of subsidized child care, either through vouchers or day care at the workplace. Many families also take advantage of tax breaks on childcare spending, but affluent workers are far more likely to benefit. Most lower-paying jobs lack childcare benefits of any kind.

Marianne Raney is a single mother of five who makes $9 an hour at a McDonald’s in Miramar. “I brought my daughter on my interview when I got hired at McDonald’s,” she explains, citing one example among many when her roles as parent and employee have been at odds.

“She was suspended from school, so I had to drag her along with me…and I’m like, ‘Sorry! Bear with me, I get a lot of phone calls from the school,” Raney says with a chuckle. Overall, she says her managers have been as flexible as they can be. With more predictable interruptions, like vacations, she schedules her days off weeks or months ahead. But there are times she has to be at work when she has nowhere to put her kids, or when she has to take time off whether she can afford it or not.

This year, Raney stayed home with her kids for most of spring break. “I can’t afford it, but…I’m enjoying every minute of it,” she says.

After more than six months on a state waiting list, Raney recently got a voucher that covers some child care for her youngest daughter. Gina Adams, a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, says that wait reflects a gap between childcare demand and childcare funding for low-income parents. “The care has to come from someplace and somebody has to pay for it because people other than relatives don’t tend to provide it for free.”

Nationally, she says, there’s just not enough public funding for child care to go around. In Florida, about one in 10 children eligible for subsidized care actually receives it. “The bottom line for me is it is a public good to have children cared for in high-quality, good settings and to have their parent be able to work.” Adams says investing in child care will make for better workers now and better workers in the future.