Like millions of women across the country, Shekira Bradwell found herself in a no-win situation last year.

Bradwell, a Philadelphia-area mother, realized she could either return to work and pay for a babysitter, or abandon that job and care for her child, whose school had reverted to distance learning. Bradwell’s daughter, 8, has special needs. The care her child required wasn’t just expensive, it was all but impossible to find. 

Bradwell had little choice but to take family leave, a benefit that expired before her daughter’s in-person schooling resumed. By the end of the year, Bradwell, a 44-year-old with a master’s degree, found herself unemployed. 

Bradwell is desperate to get back on track professionally, but she’s wary of returning to the same job she held before COVID-19 working in a child care center. The irony is, the industry’s low pay and rigorous time demands make it difficult for its workforce to meet their own child care needs.

Close to 3 million women left the U.S. labor force during the pandemic. And that trend is reflected in the 94% female child care industry, where a little more than half of the workers are mothers. According to some estimates, child care lost 1 in 6 of its jobs while COVID-19 raged. 

Many of those workers may never return to those jobs, in some cases because they’ve been lured to higher-paying – if less gratifying – work elsewhere. Experts told USA TODAY of former child care providers who now work at Starbucks or McDonald’s because now they at least have health insurance. (Child care centers, which are often strapped for cash themselves, are seldom able to provide such perks.) Some workers also decided to go on unemployment, the checks more lucrative than their pay stubs. 

Just half of the child care workers who left early on in the pandemic have returned, said Myra Jones-Taylor, the chief policy officer at the nonprofit Zero to Three, at a recent U.S. Senate committee hearing. 

“We’re in a staffing crisis in this industry,” said Leslie Spina, the executive director of an early-childhood education provider in Philadelphia. “Workforce development is really in an ugly place right now.”

And that’s a problem for the U.S. economy. Nearly 1 in 4 parents is either not working or is working less than before the pandemic, thanks to disruptions in child care and in-person school, according to a recent report by the Federal Reserve. Child care shortages continue to plague parts of the country.

For America to get back to work, it needs to solve those shortages.  …

Read the full story in USA TODAY.