With her husband employed with a food manufacturing and distribution company and child care and schools closed, Joanna Lepore, a veteran of the Wall Street investment firm PIMCO, left her job as a VP at the firm because of the pressure and constraints brought on by the pandemic.
Lepore, 38, has lots of company. Over 30% of working mothers consider leaving the workforce or downshifting careers because of what governments, companies and the Covid-19 pandemic has done to their lives. If they do, that woman could stunt their income for decades. When you starting making 82 cents on the dollar compared to men this does not lead to a promising conclusion.
“I reached a breaking point,” said Lepore. “I loved my job and people I worked with, aside from a boss who demanded a ton of face time, and, strangely enough, was a woman. There was no way I’d make it through with my sanity intact. I either sacrifice my family or my career.”
She recently started remote work at the financial services firm IHS Markit with a more understanding boss.
“The higher load of household work and child care means women are feeling burnt out more than male counterparts,” said Jessica Huang coauthor of a recent McKinsey 2020 report, that shows women reduced work hours, or left jobs altogether, to care for children.
The United States is now at risk of losing $64.5 billion in economic activity in a year from women’s lost wages — largely due to the lack of child care.
By February, more than 2.3 million American women had dropped out completely from the labor force since the start of the pandemic (only 1.8 million men left the labor force in that time).
Job losses among men (5.1%) and women (5.9%) between January 2020 and January 2021 show women pay the price. For women of color, unemployment is higher. More than 1 in 12 Black women (8.5%) were unemployed in January 2021.
“Women of color bear the brunt,” said Tina Tchen, CEO of the nonprofit Times Up Now, which fights gender discrimination in the workplace. “The pandemic exposed long-standing lack of caregiver infrastructure for all women.”
Ellen Yin, one of Philly’s top restaurateurs, had to fire 150 workers last spring, roughly 90% of her staff.
“Our industry has large numbers of undocumented workers and immigrants, many of whom never had income before,” she said. “They don’t qualify for unemployment, and that weighs on us.”
To make matters worse, during the pandemic, her elderly mother suffered a debilitating stroke which caused her to be an unexpected caregiver.
“We weren’t able to have caregivers come, and she needs 24-hour-a-day supervision,” Yin said.
In between applying for emergency loans for her business, Yin moved her mother in with her family permanently.
“My mom gets up every hour some nights. I typically get five to six hours’ sleep,” she said. “I function.”
As a senior leader in her industry, Yin felt the pressure to be always “on,” especially for her workers who remained. “I had to be strong for everyone. Even though leaders don’t have any better clue than anyone else. I haven’t cried in front of them — yet.”
The general population doesn't understand how profoundly this nation's childcare industry was effected by the pandemic. Enrollment last spring cratered and never fully rebounded. This reduction in their revenue along with additional expenses, from protective gear to deep cleaning, forced up to 40% of U.S. day cares to close and those that remained were not allowed to enroll as many children.
The pandemic also forced most schools to close over the last year. Philadelphia is a good example as they are now just reopening after 361 days of closure.
Unemployment in the greater Philadelphia region hit Black men, Black women, and Hispanic women the hardest, it topped 20% for these subsets of workers vs. a year ago. The unemployment rate for women in the Philly region (6%) is still nearly twice as high as it was in February 2020 (3.1%).
Yvonne Ferguson-Hardin is a fitness instructor that had contracts teaching classes at Center in the Park in Germantown, several nursing homes, and numerous assisted living facilities in Philadelphia, all of which shut down after the virus hit.
The 56-year-old single mother lives with three children between ages 12 and 20, along with her 94-year-old mother.
“It’s been a challenge. Juggling everything. Everyone’s home and needs space. And my youngest daughter needs more help. She’s not motivated to do homework or get up on time. There’s no routine, no bus to run for, no reason to get dressed, no friends to see.”
Nationally, nearly 1 in 11 Latinas (8.5%), and more than 1 in 13 Asian women (7.9%) remained unemployed, according to the National Women’s Law Center. For white women, the rate was 5.2%.
It’s largely women working America’s low-paying jobs.
“A lot of these industries are heavily female, particularly food and beverage and hospitality. Those were hit first and hardest. Women are naturally adversely impacted,” said Doneene Damon, managing partner of the Richards, Layton & Finger law firm in Wilmington.
“It’s been the perfect storm,” Damon said. “We’re now in year two. Everyone’s exhausted. Women are completely overwhelmed with child care and household care, plus their jobs.”
As the new school year remains months away it is still unclear how the 2021-2022 school year will be handled.
“Why do we not know? This alone is a catastrophe for working women with dependents, and it’s only part of the tsunami destroying their careers,” said Perelman, who has a 6-year-old.
“For women, there’s no going back to work without school.”
Samantha Matlin, a Center City mother and full-time nonprofit executive, said she is “frustrated at the School District, and the lack of innovation."
“Why haven’t we put the most vulnerable children in some of the office buildings for school?” she said. “That should have been a plan months ago. Philly is such an underdog city, we don’t take advantage of the resources we have.”
Some companies went the extra mile — setting up virtual classrooms within the workplace.
“People are sharing ideas as to how to cope, ideas about arts and crafts, keeping kids busy on an hour-long conference call, or a court hearing, and not look completely chaotic,” said Damon, the Wilmington lawyer.
Many companies have stepped up doubling paid leave time and making adjustment to their workers schedules to promote flexibility to care for those with dependents. However, the U.S. lacks national standards on paid family or sick leave, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“The current system is a patchwork of policies determined by employers, state and local laws, or negotiated through labor contracts,” the foundation said in a December 2020 report.
President Joe Biden’s newly passed stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, specifically supported families with young children and child-care providers.
Tchen called the package “great news, as it is really needed as emergency relief. But it isn’t the full investment that is needed to build the caregiving infrastructure — including child care — that our country needs.”