It didn’t matter how much Sara Warren loved her job when she found out early in the COVID-19 pandemic that her daughter’s preschool was shutting down.
With a husband whose work fell under an essential worker designation and no other options for tending their 5-year-old amid a public health crisis that was bringing their hometown near Minneapolis to a near standstill, Warren was forced to walk away from her longtime office manager position.
The impacts of that involuntary status change were deeply and personally impactful, she said.
“I’ve been working pretty much since I was 11 years old and started tending children at my synagogue’s preschool,” Warren said. “I never thought I’d be a stay-at-home mom. ... It wasn’t part of my plan.
“It was mentally very, very difficult. And even though I was eligible for unemployment, it really hurt my self-esteem.”
Six months after Warren had to leave her job, a stark statistic arose that illustrated just how COVID-19 was affecting families.
Even though women account for about half of all U.S. employees, more than four times as many women as men left their jobs last September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While numerous contributing factors are behind the 865,000 to 216,000 gender differential that month, experts say the pandemic’s impact on child care services, and women’s ongoing role as the predominant primary caregivers, even in two-parent households, is helping drive the unemployment disparity.
Research conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult found more than 70% of parents with children under the age of 5 reported their child care provider was closed or operating on a limited basis. And, half of parents surveyed amid the pandemic said it was significantly harder to find quality child care services versus pre-pandemic. Who’s filling in that void?
The same group of researchers found more than half of U.S. families that aren’t sending kids back to day care have a parent shouldering the load while about a third will get that help from another family member.
And those impacts could be both long-lasting and poised to undo decades of progress toward balancing inequities when it comes to men and women and the world of paid work.
“Women have been doing worse than men, from a paid employment perspective, throughout the pandemic,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, senior fellow for public policy think tank Center for American Progress. “If you look at the industries hardest hit by COVID-19, it reads like a Venn diagram of the occupations most occupied by women. Leisure, hospitality, pink-collar service jobs.
“And, women are providing the majority of family caregiving, whether you’re talking about minor children or elderly adults or those with disabilities.”
Further exacerbating impacts on working women is the mass shutdown of child care service providers across the country aimed at helping mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
An October report co-authored by Glynn found that the pandemic was dealing “a striking blow to a child care sector that was already failing to support all families” and some 4.5 million child care slots could be permanently lost.
Glynn and her co-authors wrote that the potential downstream impacts on families should not be underestimated.
“The lack of a child care infrastructure or family-forward workplace policies — policies that support caregivers to both provide and care for their family members — means the challenges of this moment are leading the United States toward a catastrophe,” the report reads.
“This will have a significant negative effect on women’s employment and labor force participation rates, which will in turn have a negative effect not only on both current and future earnings but also on retirement security and gender equity in workplaces and homes.”
One outgrowth of pandemic conditions that’s provided some options for women with caregiving responsibilities, at least those who do not have face-to-face work requirements, is remote work. But even telecommunicating comes with challenges.
Aniza Brown is the chief of corporate transformation and the federal women’s program manager for Hill Air Force Base. Brown said she was pregnant at the beginning of the pandemic and also had 2-year-old at home.
Early on in the crisis, she was headed to a required in-person meeting at the base but had to make one stop on the way to drop her toddler at day care. Instead of the quick handoff she was anticipating, Brown instead found a locked door and a sign saying the facility was forced to close due to public health concerns. Unsure what to do, and with no easy backup plan, Brown called the executive officer of the Air Force general with whom she was meeting that morning. The officer said to go ahead and bring her son in and they would make it work for the meeting.
“I wasn’t expecting that response,” Brown said. “But it was a reflection of the compassion and understanding my leadership has shown me as a mother and director.”
Brown said she worked mostly in a remote capacity early on in the pandemic but is now working a hybrid schedule that splits remote and in-person duties.
While being able to work at least part-time at home helps with caregiving responsibilities, Brown said anyone with young children knows it’s a juggling act.
“My toddler was right in the middle of the terrible twos and either very happy or very needy,” Brown said. “In one Zoom meeting, I was speaking with my general and he just came and punched the back of my laptop because he wanted my attention.”
Brown said she has been extremely grateful for the chance to make telecommuting part of her solution for work and counts herself lucky among many mothers she knows with jobs that do not accommodate remote work.
Having school-age children, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily alleviate the challenges either.
Glynn and her fellow researchers found that students who are studying at home under pandemic conditions, even older elementary students, can require significant supervision.
“While some high school students may be able to self-direct, elementary students require assistance navigating virtual education,” the report reads. “The fact that a child is enrolled in elementary, or middle, or high school does not necessarily mean that they do not still require significant attention from a parent during school hours.”
The fallout for caregivers equates to additional time and effort on top of work duties. Research reflects that 80% of parents had plans to navigate work while facilitating learning and 90% with school-age and younger children “will be primarily responsible for caring for both, even while meeting their work and other obligations.”
While 12.1 million women versus just over 10 million men lost jobs in the worst stretch of COVID-19 impacts between February and April last year, women are also lagging behind men in reentering the job market. Utah has been bucking that trend in overall numbers, with more men than women filing for unemployment compensation throughout the pandemic, but it is also a state where women make up only 44% of the workforce, a full 5 percentage points below the national average.
And a closer look at Utah labor data shows that women in the state are, as Glynn’s research reflected, overrepresented in the sectors worst hit by COVID-19. That includes an 80% share of employees in personal care services, 55% of food preparation and service, and 64% of community services/arts.
Glynn said it will take significant efforts on the part of public policymakers to push back on the rising tide of women pushed out of paid work during the pandemic. In the near term, that should include coronavirus relief funding earmarked for child care services and long term, systemic changes aimed at ensuring public funding to serve the diverse needs and preferences of families.
Paid family and medical leave, paid sick and safe days, fair scheduling and workplace flexibility policies will also play a critical role in changing the status quo.
Cydni Tetro, Utah tech entrepreneur and founder/president of nonprofit advocacy group Women Tech Council, believes the rise of remote work options amid pandemic conditions could also help change the negative flow of employment inequities.
“One of the impacts of COVID-19 is that it’s isolated all of us,” Tetro said. “And some are barely holding on to maintaining their family and work lives.
“We need to find those people and bring them back in ... and remote work can help accomplish that.”
Tetro said while the pandemic has compelled the creation of remote work opportunities across business sectors for pure survival reasons, working from home (or wherever) is not likely to fade out, even after the public health crisis has abated. And those changes could help create new working opportunities, at all levels, for those with caregiving responsibilities.
“Outside a pandemic, nothing was going to force the world to embrace remote work on the scale that it has,” Tetro said. “Now it’s a perfect opportunity for businesses to access talent and change things from the top down.”
For working mother Warren, remote work has recently opened a door to a new opportunity after COVID-19 pushed her out of a job that she wouldn’t have left except for the extraordinary circumstances.
“This past year has been about learning what you can handle and what you can’t handle,” Warren said. “On the upside, as difficult as the last nine months have been I would never been able to have spend this much time with our kid.
“Hopefully everyone will learn that the flexibility for parents and family and all of that is so important. There is for sure a silver lining, and I think people are going to come out of it better, but it’s going to take a lot of time.”
Correction: An earlier version failed to identify Sarah Jane Glynn, senior fellow for the public policy think tank Center for American Progress, on first reference.