Law360 (July 15, 2020, 10:29 PM EDT) -- Congressional Republicans have unveiled a plan to make financial assistance available to struggling child care providers so they can safely reopen as parents head back to work amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but Democrats assailed it for not including the funding needed to adequately address the problem.
Introduced Tuesday by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, with the backing of Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the GOP's Back to Work Child Care Grants Act would enable the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to issue grants to states, which could then dole them out to qualified child care providers.
The financial assistance is aimed at helping those providers pay for "fixed costs and increased operating expenses" tied to COVID-19 for up to nine months, like sanitizing and modifying facilities, buying personal protective equipment and hiring staff.
Providers that accept grant money must adhere to state and local health and safety mandates and must agree to stay open for at least a year so long as "extraordinary circumstances," like a state of emergency declaration, doesn't shut them down. The bill is designed to "supplement" funds made available through the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990.
A representative from Ernst's office told Law360 that the structure of the financial assistance program and the amount of money that child care providers can get will vary by state.
The senator's office noted in a brief outline of the bill that many parents have expressed concern about finding child care as they prepare to go back to work, and that many providers are under severe financial strain due to the ongoing pandemic.
"In my conversations with our moms and dads and providers across the state, I've heard consistently — even before COVID-19 — about the struggle to find quality, affordable child care, and I've worked to fix that," Ernst said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this pandemic has only made our child care crisis worse. In addition to the support we helped secure in the CARES Act, this new proposal will help relieve anxiety for families by ensuring our kids are in safe environments and stabilizing the child care sector as a whole."
Alexander, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, similarly said that the availability of child care is a "critical part" of getting parents back on the job.
"Two-thirds of children in the U.S. under age 6 have parents in the workforce, and those parents can't go to work if they don't have someone to take care of their children safely during the day," Alexander said in a statement urging other senators to back Ernst's proposal.
But Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the HELP committee, criticized the GOP's plan in a statement Wednesday, saying its flaw is funding.
"I'm very glad to see that my Republican colleagues have recognized that we need to do something about the child care crisis in this country — but their proposal doesn't even invest a single dime in actually solving the problem," Murray said. "Frankly, it's like they're trying to put out a fire with an empty bucket."
Instead, Murray called on her colleagues in Congress to pass the Democrats' Child Care Is Essential Act, which she introduced in June and which sets aside $50 billion to help child care operators safely reopen their doors.
That money would go towards their operating costs, any added expenses they incur to enhance safety, paying educators, and giving an extra boost to child care operators "that serve underserved populations," among other things, according to Murray.
The senator noted that her bill is backed by over 80 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Save the Children Action Network and several unions.
"Democrats have a serious plan that would provide significant and much needed resources to stabilize the child care sector and ensure all working families — especially families of color and other families who've typically struggled with access to child care — are able to find and afford it," Murray said. "We see this as a critical part of our response to the pandemic — and I hope Republicans will demonstrate this same seriousness by working with us to provide the funding needed to support providers, parents and children."
--Editing by Breda Lund.
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