LAS VEGAS — Heather Peele is just like any other mom rushing to pick up her child at day care after work. Except, it’s 2:30 a.m., and her 6-year-old daughter has been sleeping for hours at a 24-hour child care center near the Las Vegas airport.
Parents like Peele, a casino cocktail waitress, who work outside traditional business hours often are lost in the national conversation about access to child care and early education.
“I’m just in survival mode right now,” said Peele, who is thankful she found a safe, clean and affordable facility for her daughter while she works, sometimes until 4 a.m. She pays about $40 a day for 10 hours of care.
In many cases, the children of shift workers are cared for by relatives or friends in unofficial capacities. Those without such a support network have few, if any, options.
The National Survey of Early Care and Education said in a 2015 report that just 2 percent of the child care centers it surveyed offer child care in the evening. Six percent provide overnight care and 3 percent have weekend hours.
“It’s a huge issue. We have an increasingly service-based economy with non-standard hours, that’s more heavily concentrated in lower income groups,” said Taryn Morrissey, a child development expert and professor at American University. “The child care sector hasn’t really caught up with the realities of hours parents are working.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., proposed legislation Thursday designed to increase access to affordable child care, including for families that work non-traditional hours. Murray called the bill “a smart investment in our children, our future and our economy,” but its future is far from certain in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Child Care Aware of America said that last year at least 65,000 families in 28 states sought child care outside the usual workday. The other states don’t keep track, according to Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, deputy chief of public policy and research at the non-profit, which works with state child care referral agencies.
“The systems that we have — day care, Head Start, Pre-K — a lot of that began years and years ago, when we had different needs,” Sanchez Fuentes said. “Families are changing and communities are changing.”
Even in Las Vegas, an entertainment and gambling destination long notorious for blurring the hours of a day, the availability of 24-hour child care is limited.
Peele, a 42-year-old single mother, was sent scrambling when the child care center at the MGM Grand casino-hotel property stopped offering 24-hour service.
Day care centers at casinos off the Las Vegas Strip also have closed or cut back hours in recent years. In Nevada, about two dozen out of 450 licensed child care centers are open around the clock.
“I was shocked,” Peele said of her few options. “I know I’m not the only one.”
She enrolled her daughter at the McCarran International Child Development Center, adjacent to but unaffiliated with the airport and just minutes away from the Las Vegas Strip.
The for-profit center opened last year, offering care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for up to 12 hours a day per child. It requires just a day’s notice for babies, and two-hour notice for kids up to 12 years old. About half of the caregivers have some sort of college education, primarily two-year associates degrees.
Peele’s daughter is one of 141 children enrolled.
On a recent weekday evening, five caregivers cared for about two dozen children, ranging in age from infants to school-aged. The kids’ art adorned the walls, music played in the background and children ran around playing.
The children were served a dinner of breaded chicken with potatoes. By about 9 p.m., they had brushed their teeth and changed into pajamas for bedtime.
Owner Nicolas Del Balso, 64, who retired to Las Vegas after running day care centers in Canada, said staffing the facility is challenging. Many applicants say they’re willing to work odd hours only to insist on a daytime schedule after they’re hired.
“The labor market is transient and that affects everything,” he said. “Your day care is a reflection of your society.”
Del Balso said flexibility is critical for the center and its customers. Most day cares that close at a determined time demand promptness, charging by the minute for parents running late.
Precyla Escobar, 24, said she’s dropped off her 2-year-old son, Zeke, at the McCarran center as early as 4 a.m., and picked him up past 7 p.m. If she has to stay late at the hospital lab where she works.
“I feel like they’re my family,” Escobar said. “It’s really hard to find a place that will take care of your kid.”
Peele’s daughter, Kiina Amado, said she doesn’t mind sleeping on a cot alongside a dozen other kids at night. The first-grader and aspiring dentist-dancer said it’s hard sometimes to be woken up in the middle of the night to go home. And then there’s that other, occasional, problem:
“I forget my pajamas,” Kiina said.