With the fall season upon us, the pandemic in full swing, and the school year underway, most working mothers are experiencing a sense of dread. For the mothers whose children are learning virtually, this school year brings the issue of juggling work and homeschooling again. And for the mothers who are able to send their children to school in person, a sense of fear and anxiety about safety looms. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most schools shifted to some form of remote learning, leaving many working mothers with little choice but to sacrifice career demands in order to care for and teach their children.
This scenario is becoming progressively more common. Research indicates that working mothers are increasingly withdrawing from the U.S. workforce as the pandemic leaves parents with few child care options as well as the additional responsibility of navigating distance learning. This departure could have disparate and long-term effects on the careers of numerous women across the country.
The lack of child care is at the core of this issue – it just isn’t as available as it was before the pandemic. Data provided by the job search website Indeed.com shows that thousands of daycare facilities have shut down, either by decree or because demand has decreased significantly, with a small percentage remaining open for essential workers only. Child care services have been much slower to hire again than other areas of the economy, with at least half of the country’s child care providers currently closed, many for good. This means the responsibilities that caretakers were once able to manage now fall onto parents, during their work hours.
Even before the pandemic, daycare centers operated on very thin margins, and now, without revenue, the industry is on the verge of collapsing. Many day care facilities cannot survive if enrollment drops below 85 percent. Any loss of capacity will put pressure on working parents who rely on child care to remain in the workforce. Attempting to combat this crisis, a coalition of business and early-childhood-education groups is asking Congress for targeted stimulus designed to ensure that daycare centers remain available and sustainable. As the nation slowly recovers from this economic crisis, parents are beginning to return to work. This means that child care providers will be expected to reopen, while operating on financial losses for months to come due to social distancing requirements and continued low enrollment. Providers will also face increased operating expenses to meet new and important health and safety standards.
Studies have shown that women already assume much of the burden of caring for and educating their children at home; now, they’re also more likely than men to have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. In 2015, the Pew Research Center asked parents about how they divide family responsibilities when both work full time. 1 For every task, more respondents reported that the mother took on a larger amount of the load than those who said the father did, including tasks such as managing children’s schedules, caring for children when they’re sick, and handling household chores. The August 2020 federal jobs reports showed that women ages 25-54 were exiting the work force at a higher rate than other age groups, with the overall drop translating into 1.3 million women exiting the labor force since February.
The COVID-19 crisis will push many women out of the labor force permanently, as the breakdown of the child care infrastructure, depended upon by so many parents, amplifies these problems. In the short-term, this trend jeopardizes the financial stability of families. In the long-term, the crisis could delay, if not undo, decades of hard-fought advances by working women, who still have a long way to go to achieve labor force parity with men.
“We’re in danger of erasing the limited gains we’ve made for women over the past few decades, and especially women of color,” said Melissa Boteach, Vice President for Income Security and Child Care/Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center. “Despite the leaps over the past decades, working women still entered the pandemic at a disadvantage. They are typically paid 82 cents for every dollar men earn, according to research by the National Women’s Law Center.”
“Among working mothers and fathers, the wage gap is even higher at 70 cents. The median household earnings for mothers in the U.S. is $42,000, compared to $60,000 for fathers. When left with no choice but to give up one income as child care options collapse, that wage gap incentivizes fathers to stay in the workforce and mothers to leave, or at least scale back.” 2
Liana Christin Landivar, author of the book “Mothers at Work: Who Opts Out?” and a sociologist at the Maryland Population Research Center, said: “We already knew there was a large gender inequality in the labor force, and the pandemic just makes this worse.”
Betsey Stevenson, the former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, recently stated: “The impact of the child care crisis on women’s outcomes is going to be felt over the next decade.”
In the U.S., 80% of private sector workers do not have access to paid family leave, which is not mandated by federal law. This especially affects mothers, who account for the majority of the country’s teachers, nurses and child care workers.
Data has shown that when a woman leaves the work force, even if only for a short time, there are ripple effects that can follow her for the rest of her life, even depressing her earnings in retirement. Women who take time off from work to be with their children are often stereotyped as being less serious about their careers, thus making the reentry to the work force after a hiatus extremely challenging. A 2007 study revealed that working mothers were viewed as less competent than working fathers and that their recommended salaries were also lower.
As the pandemic wears on, many schools remain closed and child care operators struggle to remain open. This may result in even more women deciding that their only choice is to reduce their hours or temporarily halt their careers, all of which will result in potentially devastating consequences.
While the impact of the child care crisis on women’s outcomes is going to be felt over the next decade, there are actions that can be taken to mitigate the crisis. Federal policymakers can invest in the child care industry and provide workers with access to paid leave to support working families and maternal employment. “For example, a significant stabilization fund would prevent the United States from permanently losing as many as 4.5 million licensed child care slots over the next several months. Working parents also need access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave so that they are able to take time off work to care for a child, care for a sick loved one, or recover their own health without losing a paycheck or their job.” 3
- Note that this sample included male/female married couples only.
- Olson, Alexandra and Bussewitz, Cathy. “Child Care Crisis Pushes US Mothers out of the Labor Force during Coronavirus.” Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Sun-Times, 5 Sept. 2020, chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2020/9/5/21424455/child-care-crisis-pushes-us-mothers-out-of-the-labor-force-during-coronavirus.
- Morrissey, Taryn and Malik, Rasheed. “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Forcing Millennial Mothers Out of the Workforce.” Center for American Progress, 12 Aug. 2020, www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/news/2020/08/12/489178/covid-19-pandemic-forcing-millennial-mothers-workforce.
About The Author
Tracey L. Schroeder is an attorney and marketing and communications professional. She is an experienced writer and newsletter contributor and is a member of the WBAI. Tracey previously served on the WBAI Judicial Reception committee and currently serves on the WBAI Newsletter committee.