‘A Five-Alarm Fire’: Experts Fear 2021 Might Be Even Worse for Working Moms

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In 2019, Shanita Matthews was living the American dream. One of six children raised by her grandparents, she grew up in a household filled with love, but in such poverty she lacked basic necessities like toothpaste and underwear. Food came from fishing and subsistence farming.

But Matthews rose above poverty and put herself through Georgia State University. She became a registered nurse, one of the most financially stable and secure occupations in the US.

So solid was her financial footing that when a contracting firm she was working for shut down in 2019, she saw it as an opportunity to pursue her dream of launching a wedding business. She did her research, spent the winter planning and invested $10,000 of savings in preparation for the spring 2020 wedding season.

Then the pandemic hit. Weddings were canceled. Her husband’s commission-based salary dropped dramatically and the family quickly went through their savings. Schools closed and, without childcare, Matthews needed to stay home to supervise her then-6-year-old daughter’s remote learning.

In a matter of months, her life went from comfortably upper middle class with a $160,000 a year salary to having her car repossessed, not being able to afford food and struggling to pay utility bills.

“I mean, it can be embarrassing, feeling like you can’t provide and take care of your family,” said Matthews. She reached out to Facebook groups for support and became a member of Unemployed Action, an advocacy campaign aimed at ensuring that all people have access to adequate unemployment insurance.

Because her business was new, she did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program. Matthews applied for the $200 a week Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The money would allow her to get a car so she could drive to work or pay for childcare, but bureaucratic delays and errors have caused her application to be rejected three times. Her latest appeal failed this week.

“It hurts me so bad, because I of all people have never wanted anything from anybody. I’ve never reached out for help—and then to be desperately in need of help and slapped in my face,” said Matthews. ”I’m losing hope that there are people who are willing to do the right thing, you know, and I’m trying my best.”

As the US approaches the first anniversary of COVID-19 shutdowns, it’s increasingly clear that women, and particularly Latina women and Black women like Matthews, have borne the brunt of the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent jobs report, all 156,000 of jobs lost in December were lost by women of color. Black and Latino people are dying from COVID at twice the rate as white and Asian people. And lower wages earned on the dollar left them with less savings and cushion—even before the pandemic, Latina and Black women earned 35 percent less than white men.

“The jobs report and most recent labor force data offered the most dismal confirmation yet of what we have feared for months—that women, and most especially women of color, are suffering tremendously in this ongoing pandemic,” says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at the nonpartisan think tank New America.

With many schools and daycares still remote or closed and key protections from the CARES act—such as paid leave—having expired in December, experts fear more moms could be pushed out of the workforce, and the consequences of COVID-19 for women could be permanent.

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For now, women are exhausted.

“In 2020, women were asked to run a marathon backwards while juggling fire and their children,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation.

While the slowly growing distribution of a vaccine offers some cause for optimism, neither Shabo nor Kashen think this exhaustion is coming to an end anytime soon. They agree that COVID didn’t create the problem so much as exacerbated existing concerns for women in the workforce.

“This has gone from a crisis to a five-alarm fire,” says Kashen. “We’re living with the results of decades and decades of patriarchy and policy choices that are racist and sexist. We’re not going to change that overnight just because the calendar turns.”

School Uncertainty Persists

Only 44 percent of schools are offering full in-person instruction, according to a Center for Reinventing Public Education report released this week—leaving most students reporting to school at home. The burden of remote learning on women is substantial. An October poll by Marketplace and Edison Research found that 63 percent of women supervise remote learning, more than double the rate of men.

And schools that remain open close regularly if COVID-19 numbers increase. These unpredictable school closings can prevent women from returning to work. It’s part of the reason Matthews hasn’t been able to get a job. “If I get a great offer and I tell the employer I can be there, and now all of a sudden schools are closed all over again, I’m gonna lose my job,” she said.

Adding to women’s stress is that many districts leave the decision as to whether to send children to school or not to families. Data on transmission is not being collected at a nationwide level, and calculating risk is complicated.

For families who chose between in-person and remote learning, avoiding the virus is not the only factor in their decision. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision-making tool explicitly asks if parents feel they will be able to do their job if their child is at home, as well as if children will get adequate nutrition if they don’t have access to school meals. Families are left to weigh the risk of lost income with the risk of infection. It’s a series of calculations so complex that even public health experts can’t agree on recommendations, so each family is left to make the decision for themselves.

These decisions should get easier soon. Teachers and educators are among the first eligible for vaccinations, following healthcare workers and nursing home residents. Children should soon have access to vaccines as well. According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer anticipates having results of vaccine trials for children ages 12 to 17 in early 2021. Moderna is finalizing a study designed for children under 12 and is optimistic that their safety and efficacy trials will be complete by fall of 2021.

Daycares Are Vanishing

While schools might recover by fall, daycares are in a precarious financial position. Many of them are on the brink of closure. And without daycare, many women will not be able to work even beyond the pandemic.

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Over half of all daycares report losing money every day that they stay open, according to a recent report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). With COVID, daycares have incurred additional costs for cleaning supplies, protective personal equipment (PPE) and staff turnover. Nearly 70 percent of daycares say recruitment and retention are more difficult than they were before the pandemic.

“The situation is dire for childcare providers—the ones that are still open,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, the CEO for NAEYC. “Add to that the thousands of providers that have already closed and the magnitude of this national crisis is much, much greater.”

One-third of childcare homes and one-fourth of childcare centers surveyed say that if enrollment remains at current levels, but the government provides no support, they will have to close in the next three months.

Until now, support has been limited. The PPP loans reached only 6 percent of daycare providers. And for providers that did receive the loan, 40 percent are still dipping into their own pockets to cover expenses. Congress passed a COVID relief package in December that allocated $10 billion to the childcare industry, rather than the $57 billion that, according to experts, is necessary to bailout daycares. “Without relief, our post-pandemic national economy will struggle to recover as parents can’t find high quality, reliable childcare for their children,” says Alvin.

But more support might be coming. President-Elect Joe Biden released plans on January 14 for a $1.9 trillion relief package that would provide $25 billion to stabilize childcare centers, and an additional $15 billion to help low-income families afford care. Families making up to $400,000 would be eligible for increased childcare tax credits. This could help ensure that once the pandemic is under control, women can return to work.

Women Continue to Leave the Labor Force

With all of the pressures of juggling work and childcare during COVID, something has to give. For many women, it is their careers. A US Census report found that women are three times as likely as men to leave the workforce to care for children during COVID.

A lack of policies that provide childcare and support for mothers has led to the lowest rates of participation of women in the workforce since the 1980s. “It’s never been less of a mystery why women are losing jobs or leaving the labor force,” said Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress. “Paid leave, affordable, high quality childcare, support for caregiving, more work flexibility, summer school, all of these things are important.”

Many businesses plan to continue the incentives they offered in 2020 to mitigate the pressures on caregivers and retain parent employees. In 2021, Bank of America and KPMG, for example, will continue to offer childcare support, though KPMG is reducing the number of backup childcare days from 60 to 30—still, double what it was pre-pandemic.

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However, this sort of support is often more available to white-collar women and not women working, for example, in the service industry.

“Women make up the majority of the jobs that have been hit hardest, service sector jobs, the public sector jobs,” says Kashen. “Women of color are on the front lines of the recession, and they’re also on the front lines of the public health crisis.”

Rosa Hardesty, an HR Knowledge Advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management, predicts that some of the changes, such as flexible start times and telework, will stick. “Now that employers have been forced to allow remote work for more of their workforce, they are seeing that it can work.”

She also thinks that employers will be more understanding of time off and will offer more support for childcare.

Others are less optimistic.

“Even after a vaccine is widely available and life and the economy start to return to normal, the effect on women at work will be profound,” said Shabo. “Real care challenges plus stigma plus the effect that leaving the labor force for a while has on wages will be detrimental for years to come.”

Relief Needed Now

All of these issues have been exacerbated by the mismanagement of COVID-19 and delays in the vaccine rollout. One of the core challenges for women is that the pandemic is not yet under control. There is no national mask mandate, and the virus continues to spread. It still takes days to receive a test result, and every day that a child with a common cold is waiting for a COVID test result is a day that the child is not in school.

And as more than 3,000 people are dying a day, infection rates are soaring, and intensive care units are filled to capacity, the CARES provision that guaranteed sick leave for workers and school leave for parents expired at the end of 2020.

“As a result, 87 million workers lost access to emergency paid leave to quarantine, isolate, deal with COVID or care for children who are unable to attend school or childcare in person,” says Shabo.

How quickly working moms recover their lost progress will largely depend on the assistance they receive from their employers and the federal government.

There are some signs of hope. There are more people of color and more women of all races than in any previous Congress—23 of them with children under 18. The incoming Biden administration has called for paid sick leave to help contain the spread of the virus, as well as $160 billion for vaccination and improved testing and tracing, with the specific goal of being able to safely re-open the majority of schools within Biden’s first 100 days in office. The president-elect also proposes providing immediate relief to families with $1,400 per person checks, and an increase and expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).

“The margins in Congress mean it won’t be easy, but if moms come together, demand change and hold our leaders accountable, we can make it a reality,” Kashen said.

Shabo agrees. “This pandemic has made crystal clear that both the government and the private sector have a role to play in helping working families survive and thrive—whether we’re in a pandemic or not.”



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