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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Alea Pindat, right, does schoolwork with her nanny, Carmen Zuzolo, at home in Sandy on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017.

SANDY — There's an easy banter and clear affection when Carmen Zuzolo, 28, and Alea Pindat, 12, do their homework together. Zuzolo has been Alea's nanny since the girl was in second grade, so in some ways they're more like siblings, despite the gap in their ages.

Zuzolo is a needed part of the girl's life because her mother, Christiane Pindat, flies planes commercially. Since Alea was a baby, her mom has been gone sometimes for five to seven days at a stretch, then is home for a couple of weeks, before winging off again. It's not a schedule that fits neatly with that of nearby day care centers. And providing after-hours care on an erratic schedule is a lot to ask of friends and relatives.

Zuzolo is suited to the task in important ways. Besides being reliable, familiar and loved, she was formerly a preschool provider and she's now studying elementary education at Westminster College. That's giving her relevant skills, but also means the nanny and her charge are in school at roughly the same time. She can pick Alea up and drop her off as needed, cook, supervise, help with homework and spend the night when Pindat is gone.

Carmen Zuzolo braids Alea Pindat's hair at Alea's home in Sandy, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Pindat knows she's lucky: She's a single mom who makes a solid living and can afford to hire a nanny and pay a reasonable salary for the odd-hour care her daughter needs. Many can't. A recent report on night care shortages published by New York City-based Restaurant Opportunities Center United and the National Women's Law Center found a growing challenge for moms and dads who work nontraditional hours in a world where day care's typically built on a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. model.

A large chunk of Americans work at night. Restaurant workers, security guards, police, health care and emergency providers, flight crews, soldiers, journalists and sales clerks are among those who work weekends, nights and holidays, often on unpredictable schedules that make it hard to arrange child care in advance or with consistency.

Experts say many of their children end up in cobbled-together care situations that may include being passed among friends and family, left home alone sometimes when they shouldn't be, or placed in unregulated and sometimes risky care while their parents try to make a living.

"All our definitions of quality child care are based on the idea of daytime programs," said Jessica Sager, executive director of All Our Kin Inc., headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut, which works with licensed family child care providers who work in their homes.

Juggling schedules

Off-hour shifts happen in lots of fields, but for sheer quantity of families impacted, the restaurant and retail industries are tops. Those employees work "so everyone else can get off work and eat out or shop," said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of ROC United, a group that works with the restaurant industry to improve worker wages and conditions. Those who are parents often deal with late and unpredictable schedules that require them to be creative — and sometimes desperate — as they seek safe and appropriate care.

Alea Pindat, right, does schoolwork with her nanny, Carmen Zuzolo, at home in Sandy, Utah, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Even parents who need child care during the day may struggle to find it. When Dianne Orcutt was pregnant, the centers they considered all had lengthy waiting lists. She and her husband recruited their moms to cover initially. Later, he arranged to be home one day a week with their daughter. She recently switched jobs, taking a government job where on-site care is available; she uses it once a week. "I am incredibly lucky," said Orcutt, who cofounded Aspiring Mormon Women, a nonprofit that encourages professional and educational pursuits of LDS women.

Child care is a hot topic on the group's Facebook forum, said co-founder Naomi Watkins. "There's an inadequate supply even for those who work regular hours, and many women report dropping out of the workforce because of child care costs. So finding care for odd hours is almost impossible."

Utah Health Department administrative court Judge Patricia Abbott echoes that. She has children 2 and 4 and juggles her schedule with her husband's, going to work late so she can drop off the kids in the morning, while he goes in very early so he can be off in time to pick them up.

Cost is a major issue, too, Watkins said, citing a recent article about child care costing more than college tuition in some communities. Her group wants to call that to lawmakers' attention during the 2017 Utah Legislature by raising public awareness.

Parents often use a variety of care providers, said Sager. "They have patchwork arrangements, particularly if we're talking about parents with unpredictable hours. A large percentage of off-hour care is kin care. It's all that's available."

That care, provided by relatives, can be very good. At its best, she said, "kin care provides someone who deeply cares about you and your child, who values the relationship and will give individualized attention, who will be flexible around schedule or a child's needs, who understands and respects your values and culture, who understands your language, who lives in your community and cares about your preferences. At its best, all child care has those elements. But parents are often balancing one against the other."

Gretchen and Mark Chapman of Kaysville have five kids, 3 to 9, and he can usually watch them when she has to work a couple of night shifts as a newborn intensive care unit nurse. It took her 10 years to get a schedule where she didn't do regular night shifts. While some of her colleagues work at night to make more money, Gretchen said, others have not been able to secure a day shift even years into a job.

The Chapmans sometimes need child care when they both work a holiday or a weekend shift. They turn to one of their moms or a sister-in-law. It would be hard, she said, if they didn't have family close by.

Many employed at night rely on friends or co-workers. At a Salt Lake restaurant on a recent Tuesday night, a child was handed off between two servers. The one heading home said she sometimes takes her co-worker's son, who is 10. His mom picks him up when she gets off some time after midnight. Her sleep is often as patchy as her night care plan, interrupted to get him off to school, then she naps until it's time to go back to work. She declined to give her name for the story.

Utah providers

States have different child care licensing bodies and regulations, as well as demand. There's no perfect count of how many parents need child care for their kids or how many people step up to provide it, because so much of the care is unregulated and occurs in informal arrangements. States know precisely what the numbers are when it comes to licensed child care.

In Utah, for example, the most recent data provided by Leah Schilling of Utah State University and Care About Child Care, the state's robust gathering of resources to help parents find regulated care, shows 27,719 child care slots in licensed centers, 9,842 licensed family providers and 778 slots in certified residential settings.

Of those 38,399 licensed child care spots, fewer than 4 percent are available overnight, 7 percent on the swing shift and 5 percent on the graveyard shift. Fourteen percent of slots are available on at least some national holidays, 7 percent have some Saturday hours and 3.5 percent have Sunday slots. There is, of course, overlap, and the numbers don't equal 100 percent.

That means with the exception of holidays, more than 90 percent of day care slots are available only in traditional hours. Most of the time, parents have to pick up their kids by 6 or 7 p.m., depending on the particular provider. Some levy hefty by-the-minute fees for being late.

Those who provide care outside traditional hours may not have vacancies — right now just 6 percent of 24-hour slots are available statewide. Those that are may not be anywhere near families that need them. And — a big issue for low-wage shift workers who are often asked or even expected to pick up extra evening and weekend shifts — providers typically want to know well in advance when the child will be in their care so they can maintain children to staff ratios and they often expect to be paid in advance.

Tracy Gruber, director of the Utah Office of Child Care within the Department of Workforce Services, said Utah is in the process of completing a child care needs assessment to answer some of the questions regarding numbers and needs.

"We only know in terms of how many slots there are in regulated child care, based on what they're licensed for and how many subsidized children (low-income parents may receive help paying for child care) are in those places. That doesn't reach the actual total of need or tell us how many people use child care. We hope to get a better sense of that from this needs assessment" that's been distributed broadly to Utah families with young children.

The ROC United report said restaurant workers are a good example of the night care need and consequence, which is similar in other industries, although not all of them rely on tips. But a high share of night-shift workers are low income, according to the federal government.

The report said working parents in the restaurant industry face negative impact because of child care needs: 38 percent have been given a warning, 23 percent get "less-desirable" or fewer shifts; 18 percent have been disciplined or demoted. Child care challenges can lead to negative job evaluations, denied career opportunities and verbal abuse.

Night care availability and demand vary widely within and between states, too. Utah officials point to Moab as a community with little after-hours licensed care and higher-than-average need. On the other side of the country, Jayaraman said ROC United's research estimates of 400,000 workers in New York City, half of them parents, there are 11 licensed night care providers. Eight of them are in Manhattan, "where restaurant workers do not live."

The report said nationwide, 3.5 million parents work in restaurants, 1 million of them single moms. They rely heavily on tips; more than 40 percent live in poverty.

"For tipped restaurant workers in particular, weekend and closing shifts are often essential for paying bills and making ends meet, since tipped workers earn a wage lower than the minimum wage and depend on tips as their primary source of income," the report said.

Simple changes

Experts have identified solutions that could help families that need after-hour care.

Sager said payments and subsidies could provide incentives to child care providers to take on the additional burden of odd-hour care.

Employers could schedule workers in ways that are least disruptive to families, she said, including providing advance notice if someone is expected to work an odd shift. They could stop "clopening" — having a worker close shop late and then rush back to open it back up the next morning.

The ROC United report said policymakers should increase the stock of affordable night care and make sure it's located where workers live.

Because many late-shift workers who can't find decent night care end up leaving their professions to become providers themselves, it says efforts to help them become licensed is important. That helps ensure quality care.

It also said wages that keep restaurant staff dependent on tips should be eliminated. The report highlights restaurants that have successfully done that, giving employees who are parents more choices when it comes to shifts and child care options.

Seven states — California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska — abolished lower minimum wages for tipped workers. A tip is now a genuine gratuity "over and above their wages. "One Fair Wage" refers to a system where all workers receive a minimum wage sufficient to cover basic needs," ROC United said.

There's also a "high road" movement in the industry where workers are given more say in scheduling, though that doesn't always ensure the child care they need is available, the report noted.