Served Up: The Child Care Challenges of Restaurant Workers

By Liz Ben-Ishai, Christine Johnson-Staub, Jodie Levin-Epstein, and Hannah Matthews

The restaurant industry is tough. Low wages, unpredictable schedules, and long hours are hard enough. Add the stress of finding affordable, high-quality child care during the hours when restaurant employees need it, and working in the industry poses critical challenges to the well-being of the whole family. To enable restaurant workers who are parents to both care for their families and do their jobs effectively, we need stronger work supports and job quality policies like a higher minimum wage, expanded child care assistance, and earned sick leave. In a recent study, “The Third Shift” by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), in partnership with CLASP and a number of other national organizations, researchers found that the high cost of child care, inadequate availability of child care assistance, and limited access to care during non-traditional hours are among the barriers to child care for restaurant workers. As a result of those barriers, the study found that women working in the restaurant industry are frequently under- and unemployed. The study includes surveys, focus groups, and interviews of restaurant workers with children.

“The Third Shift” also shows that work-family imbalance and lack of paid sick time are issues that compound the challenge of finding and keeping stable child care. Only nine percent of the workers ROC surveyed had paid sick days. And without paid sick days, parents in the restaurant industry are forced to choose between either sending a sick child to a caregiver or foregoing wages in order to stay home. Workers in the restaurant industry also often face erratic and unpredictable schedules, an industry trend that makes it difficult for them to make child care arrangements. 

In “The Third Shift” Teresa, a banquet service worker in Los Angeles, explains how erratic scheduling impacts her children’s care:

“I used to have a job that was on-call at hotels, usually on evenings; I used to have to leave [my children] with [my] sister. But sometimes I would get called in, and my sister was not available, so I would suddenly have to leave them with someone else and I never knew if they had been fed, showered.”

To increase access to child care and make it more affordable for restaurant workers, the ROC report recommends:

In addition, the report recommends public policies that would provide workers with more control over work schedules, as well as supporting model employer practices such as stabilizing work schedules, providing employer-sponsored child care subsidies, and including earned sick leave in benefit packages.

Recent progress in some of these policy arenas may offer reasons to be hopeful. This year, Portland and New York City passed earned sick days laws, which will ensure that workers (including those employed in restaurants) don’t have to make the impossible choices between health and economic security that they now face. And in San Francisco and Vermont, new laws related to scheduling and workplace policies are in the works.

With more than ten million restaurant workers, over half of whom are women, it is critical that we move forward policies that support their employment and economic well-being – and that offer the children of restaurant workers access to high-quality care and early education. 

For more information about ROC’S The Third Shift: Child Care Needs and Access for Working Mothers in Restaurants, visit