May 12, 2020
By Christina Sandefur and Heather Curry
American parents rely heavily on childcare—for many, it’s critical to their ability to do their jobs. Last year, nearly 60% of children under 5 years old were enrolled in regular daycare. Many are also enrolled in kindergarten or pre-kindergarten programs outside of the home. But the COVID-19 crisis has left many working parents in the lurch, as nearly two-thirds of the country’s licensed childcare facilities have temporarily shuttered, and about one third expected to be closed permanently. And schools in almost every state have closed for the remainder of the academic year, with many discussing remaining remote in the fall. That could leave working parents—especially working moms, who undertake about 60% of childcare duties—in a difficult situation.
Even before the pandemic, studies showed that women value flexibility at work more than men do. That’s why more women have been working in the “gig” economy. One of the primary reasons is that flexible work has allowed them to balance a fulfilling career with childcare. Now, with stay-at-home orders still in place in many states, uncertainty about health risks, and children stuck at home, women’s desire to find home-based work rather than traditional office employment is even greater.
At the same time, technological advances and social distancing are accelerating demand for services that can be fulfilled from people’s homes. In the past couple of months, over 250,000 retail stores in the United States closed due to the coronavirus. As a result, more and more people are doing their shopping online, for everything from clothing to groceries. But even before the pandemic, department stores have been on a downward trend for a decade, while online shopping has grown exponentially. And even as immediate health risks subside, it’s not clear that people will revert to their pre-crisis shopping habits.
The advent of online platforms like eBay and Etsy allow people to sell clothing and crafts to customers across the country—and around the world—without leaving their homes. And for those with nothing to sell, direct sales companies like Avon and Tupperware will provide the inventory (and the support) needed to start a new business.
Of course, home-based businesses provide more than sales opportunities. Piano teachers, podcasters, accountants, lawyers, bookkeepers, translators, copy editors, graphic designers, and fitness instructors are just a few examples of professions that can operate out of one’s home without disturbing the residential neighborhood. And many of these businesses don’t even need to keep traditional hours, which gives parents the freedom to work while their kids are napping or after they’ve gone to bed.
Yet even though the opportunities—and the need—for home-based businesses have perhaps never been greater, regulations have failed to keep up with these innovations. Across the country, local rules are making it difficult or impossible—even, in some cases, criminal—for people to work from home. And these senseless regulations have fallen especially hard on working moms.
For example, Marietta Grundlehner, who left her teaching job to work from home selling clothing online so she could raise her young son, was put out of business when Fairfax County, Virginia, officials told her local zoning didn’t allow “retail sales establishments” in people’s homes—even if those sales only occur online. Kim O’Neil wanted to run a quiet, unobtrusive medical billing company from her home so she could care for her two children and sick father, and provide similar flexibility for similarly situated working moms. But the city of Chandler, Arizona, shut her down because her business had employees—even though they didn’t even work out of Kim’s house. For women who work so hard to set a positive example for their children, it is unconscionable that local governments would act to make an example out of them simply for trying to support their families.
The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered businesses, put people out of work, and left working parents scrambling to find alternatives to traditional childcare. Lawmakers who want to foster economic recovery and help struggling families in their states should act quickly to jettison these needless barriers to home entrepreneurship.