Many jobless parents could have a tougher time turning down work for lack of child care

(CNN) — Bonnie Stone, who lost her catering and waitress jobs in March, wants to send her 3-year-old daughter back to her day care program now that it’s reopened. However, she and her partner can’t afford it on only his earnings as a construction worker.

Though she’s hoping to return to work, the Cedar Park, Texas, resident said can’t find positions that would pay her enough to cover her daughter’s day-care costs. She hopes she’ll be able to remain on unemployment until she does.

“I look for work and I get one day out of the month,” said Stone, 42, who recently staffed her first catering job since March. “There just isn’t anything that fits yet for us financially.”

But out-of-work parents like Stone may not be able to continue collecting unemployment benefits if offered jobs now that camps and day cares in many states are operating once again. It will be harder for them to say they can’t work because they have no one to stay with their children — a situation millions found themselves in after states shuttered schools earlier this year to try to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

To deal with this unusual circumstance, Congress created in late March the pandemic unemployment assistance program, which allows parents to collect jobless benefits if their children’s school closures left them unable to work. They didn’t have to return to their jobs as long as their children couldn’t return to class.

But things are different now. Summer’s here, and many governors have allowed camps and day cares to reopen.

Typically, the unemployed can’t turn down jobs and continue to collect benefits. Many states are urging employers to report workers who refuse to return — especially since some may be reluctant to go back because they are making more on unemployment thanks to a temporary $600 federal boost in payments.

Whether parents in the pandemic program have to take job offers depends in part on whether the day care or camp on which they typically rely on during the summer remains closed as a result of coronavirus. In that case, the primary caregiver may be able to stay in the pandemic unemployment program.

“There is no requirement for an exhaustive search of all day cares and camps to enable eligibility,” according to a Department of Labor spokesperson.

States, however, may interpret the department’s guidance on child care availability differently. Some take a harder line.

Texas, for instance, requires residents receiving unemployment to be available for work, and that includes having child care, said a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission, which has been pushing people to accept offers.

“Refusals of work due to lack of child care will be reviewed and a decision issued based upon the facts in the case,” the spokesman said.

But Oregon has a broader definition of access to child care. The jobless there are considered eligible for pandemic benefits if their facility is closed, limited in capacity or requires them to sign up for full-time care when they only need it on a part-time basis.

Going back to day care isn’t always easy

Many parts of the nation had a shortage in child care even before the pandemic struck and forced many centers to shutter temporarily, said Isabel Soto, labor market policy data analyst at the American Action Forum, a right-leaning think tank. Some facilities may not be able to reopen after losing months of revenue, while others may limit class sizes and charge more to cover additional safety measures.

For many parents, safety is a key concern — even though a general fear of coronavirus is not enough to refuse offers and remain eligible for unemployment.

After being furloughed in April, Jill Orkisz turned down an offer to return to her job as a fitness studio manager last month because she had no one to care for her two sons, ages 9 and 4. Her husband works in construction in another state.

Her older son, Luke, is now in camp a few hours a day, but she doesn’t send him when it rains because she doesn’t want him inside with other children and staffers. She can’t afford to also send her younger son, Tucker, on her husband’s salary and her unemployment benefits.

Orkisz, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, hopes to shift to marketing and find a job that allows her to work from home. That way she won’t have to worry about who will care for her sons.

“If the schools don’t feel safe to open, how is it possible for child care to feel safe?” said Orkisz, 33, who does not yet know whether her district will have in-person classes in the fall.

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