The Pandemic Made It Impossible for Many Moms to Work. Here Are 4 Ways to Get Them Back

Covid-19 has unleashed all kinds of grief, but economically, the pandemic has been far worse for women than men. In the pandemic’s first 10 months, women lost a million more jobs than men. In December 2020, the economy shed 140,000 jobs, but women somehow managed to lose 156,000 jobs, because men actually gained 16,000 jobs. And as of March, one in four women were considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, according to a study from McKinsey. A poll by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that, of parents who are not looking to return to work, 59 percent said caregiving responsibility is the main reason.

There’s widespread agreement that the most important factor to help women get back to paid work is the reopening of schools. On the employer side, the biggest factor seems to be a continuation of some forms of remote work and flexible schedules.

When it comes to public policy, though, opinions are fractured. Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, notes that parents, and especially mothers, will return to the workforce more slowly simply because a vaccine is not yet available for young children. “Until we are at a place where schools are open universally and there are available, affordable, high-quality child care slots, many women will not be able to come back.” Even Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has chimed in, noting that the pandemic “has turned the child care problem into a crisis for mothers.”

That represents a structural problem, and one that Joceyln Frye, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says government should address. “Now that we’re on the precipice of recovery, we should not operate as if we have amnesia,” says Frye. “We need to actually fix the structural problem.”

Here are a few initiatives that could help make that happen.

1. Fund federal paid leave.

“Part of the problem,” says Frye, “is that women are the backup for everything.” Every OECD nation, with the exception of the United States, offers some form of paid leave. As Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, says, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” It doesn’t make sense to let individual employers decide on paid leave themselves, because paid leave stems from an equity issue: Without it, workplaces disproportionately penalize women, and especially women of color, who are caregivers. Without government support, the smallest companies will not be able to afford paid leave.

The U.S. made its first foray into paid leave with the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, which used tax credits to help employers pay staff who had to miss work for Covid-19-related reasons. The Biden administration’s American Families Plan allocates $225 billion for a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, paying between two-thirds and 80 percent of wages, up to $4,000 a month. The program would be phased in over 10 years, guaranteeing just three days of bereavement leave in the first year but up to 12 weeks of paid leave by the 10th year.

Paid leave obviously helps new parents keep their jobs, but the most common use of state paid leave programs is actually for an employee’s own medical needs. A study of paid leave in California found that the vast majority of employers said paid leave had a positive or neutral affect on productivity, performance, and profitability.

2. Start school earlier, with free universal pre-k.

Like school, child care plays a critical role in allowing parents, especially women, to fully participate in the paid economy. “If we think about what Covid did in bringing children home, we know child care is a huge component of this,” says Mabel Abraham, an assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.

A call for universal preschool is drawing support across the ideological spectrum, but with important differences in how it could be achieved. The Biden plan budgets $200 billion for free, universal preschool. Bauer says that focusing on Head Start, Early Head Start, and state-subsidized preschools will do the best job of helping single mothers and low-income families, because “it’s harder to influence prices” of other child care centers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce would prefer to see that money go elsewhere: “We have a lot of private sector providers that do a very good job,” says Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education and workforce policy for the Chamber.

A new study on pre-k finds that it has important benefits beyond the support of working parents. Kids who go to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to graduate. Boys are likely to get a bigger benefit than girls. 

3. Take care of the youngest.

Infant and toddler care is likewise important in keeping parents in the workforce. Oldham says the Chamber has supported funding going through the states to the child care industry. The American Rescue plan included $39 billion to stabilize the industry.

Frye would like to see a program to better pay child care workers, noting that as a group they are significantly underpaid. Pre-pandemic, a study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that 53 percent of child care workers are part of a family that participates in government support or health care programs. Higher wages, says Frye, would boost the overall quality of child care.

4. Retrain job-seekers.

If their old jobs either disappeared or were inadequate, women need some way to find new jobs. Oldham and Bauer agree that part of this challenge, and opportunity, lies in workforce development. Bauer says this requires an investment in local economies and industries, so that skills training can be better matched to employer needs. The Biden plan provides $48 billion for workforce development. The Chamber supports that, but Oldham says the work itself needs to be local. At the federal level, she says there’s a tendency to want to identify the five skills every employer needs. “It just can’t be done that way,” she says. “It needs to be much more aligned to employer needs, much more employer-driven.”

Bauer agrees that targeting is important, saying that the key is training particular populations for particular needs. “You need to be training for high-growth fields,” she says. “It can’t just be ‘let a thousand flowers bloom.'”

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