COVID-19 Is A Rolling Disaster For Working Mothers

Women are almost three times more likely than men to leave the workforce because of coronavirus-related child care demands, a new census survey finds.

The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on all parents, but especially on working mothers. A report out Tuesday from the Census Bureau offers a new look at the breadth of the crisis.

Close to 31% of women ages 25 to 44 with children at home are not working because of COVID-19-related child care issues, compared with 11.6% of men, according to a survey conducted by the Census Bureau from July 16 to July 21.

Percentage of adults with children not working because of COVID-related issues.
Percentage of adults with children not working because of COVID-related issues.
U.S. Census Bureau

Put another way, working mothers are three times more likely to have been sidelined from their jobs by COVID-19 child care issues than working fathers.

And the coming school year will offer little relief. Many school systems are still going with remote learning for 2020-21, while some are trying out hybrid schedules that mix in-person and at-home schedules. Some child care centers have permanently shuttered, and after-school and before-school care is still curtailed in many places.

With so much muddled and inconsistent scheduling, parents are hardly going to be able to slide back into a full-time workday.

The leave gap between moms and dads has been fairly consistent since the census started coronavirus-related surveys in April. The agency is collecting pandemic-specific information ― including whether Americans are having more trouble affording food (yes) and shelter (also yes).

Percentage of adults not working because of COVID-19, by week.
Percentage of adults not working because of COVID-19, by week.
U.S. Census Bureau

Women in the U.S. have long been stymied in their attempts to work by lousy policies that encourage them to stay home with children ― a lack of paid parental leave, expensive and insufficient child care options and workplaces built by and for men, who don’t have primary child care responsibilities. Working mothers also face pay discrimination and bias in promotions and hiring.

And, of course, looming over all of this is the default expectation that mothers must be the primary caretaker.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these policies and biases to an extreme degree, just as it has exposed every other inequality plaguing the U.S.

While media outlets have spotlighted how this gender imbalance in pandemic parenting could impact women’s careers ― and surely it will ― there’s a more urgent danger as well.

Working mothers report higher levels of food insecurity in the pandemic. Nearly 23% of women in households with children at home told the census that they had low confidence in their ability to afford food in the coming weeks, compared with 16.7% of those without children at home.

“I’m the breadwinner here and if I don’t go to work and we don’t have a roof over our head and we don’t have food on the shelves,” Angela Hatem, a single mother with a 15-month-old in Indianapolis, told HuffPost recently.

Hatem was one of a number of women agonizing over whether to send their children back to school, or to reopened child care centers, who recently spoke to HuffPost about their decisions. She planned to send her baby back to day care, but she was nervous. “The minute he gets that first day care cold I’m going to spiral out,” she said.

Hatem has been able to work remotely since her child care center shut down in the spring. Other women don’t have that option.

Laurin Scarpelli and her daughter
Laurin Scarpelli and her daughter
Courtesy of Laurin Scarpelli

At the start of the pandemic, Laurin Scarpelli and her partner took unpaid leave from their jobs in Prescott, Arizona, working in group homes for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Their children have cystic fibrosis and are at high risk for coronavirus. But their leave ran out and they both were fired.

They had been getting by on the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefit that was meant to help deal with the pandemic’s economic crisis. But those benefits ran out this month and Washington has been deadlocked on an extension.

“After September, when things are running out, we won’t have enough to pay rent, utilities, our phone bills, medical supplies, plus groceries for the kids, all their special needs,” Scarpelli told HuffPost last month. “It’s scary right now.”

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