In early 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, India Kushner remained unconvinced that its effects would greatly affect her day-to-day life. But, as more people began donning protective face coverings, fewer people came to the co-working space in Baltimore, MD, where she worked as an administrative assistant, greeting and assisting clients from small local businesses and start-ups. Soon enough, the office shut its doors and Kushner, whose job couldn’t be performed remotely, was let go.
“It was a really intense time,” she said. “I just hoped things would eventually get better.”
Kushner is one of the millions of American women who left the labor force, endured pay cuts and reduced hours, or lost advancement opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many were furloughed, some had no choice but to put their careers on hold while assuming full-time child or eldercare responsibilities. Others have had to juggle remote work and caregiving, resulting in mass burnout. This past January, women’s labor participation hit a 33-year low, as one in four women considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers. While some, like Kushner, have been rehired as social distancing measures and mask guidelines made it possible — and safer — to return, many women might never recover from these losses.
The last year-and-a-half has dealt a major setback to progress women had made in terms of job security and pay equity, one that could result in the further widening of the gender gap, as well as increase existing inequality amongst women. It has also shed light onto longstanding problems that predate the pandemic — a lack of policies, related to things like accessible and affordable child- and elder-care, that allow for a work-life balance and a culture that prioritizes work over everything else.
When daycares and schools shuttered and students transitioned to remote learning, working mothers — in particular those who were already vulnerable, like lower-income mothers, women of color, and single parents — were disproportionately burdened with the bulk of housework and parenting.
“Working men and women are about equally likely to have kids in the household, but we see that the women are twice as likely to say that they’ve had to quit because of caregiving responsibilities,” said Kristen Harknett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. “So there’s a huge gender gap being pushed out because of family responsibilities.”
The situation is even more complicated for mothers of children who are differently abled and need around-the-clock care.
Aisha Wells, who has a son, Alex, with disabilities, has struggled with the balancing act of being a caregiver and working for years. A single mom from Michigan, Wells has always had to adjust her work schedule hoping that coworkers would switch shifts so that she can take Alex to his physical therapy appointments. These personal hardships led her to advocacy work and Mothering Justice — a grassroots organization working on issues of mothers’ economic stability – where she is a paid family medical and sick leave organizer.
For Wells, last year was a uniquely challenging time: access to child and medical care became that much more difficult as non-essential medical visits were disallowed and Alex was unable to see a physical therapist for five months.
“He’s usually pretty mobile,” she said. “I have to help him with his daily needs and functions like brushing his teeth, getting him dressed, but [during that time] it was literally me lifting him up and carrying him around the house. I was by myself, without any help, moving him around, to the dinner table, to his bed, to the bathtub. It was hard.”
Wells said that the only thing that allowed her to continue working has been help from family and a flexible work schedule.
“Thank God for Mothering Justice, I was able to take some time off, a shorter work schedule, and take care of him,” she said. “But I know so many mothers that didn’t have any way of getting back to work. There’s many who don’t have the privilege of being at a wonderful workplace.”
Melanie Pineda encountered similar difficulties, only she had to quit to take care of her grandparents. Pineda’s grandmother is a stroke survivor who needs constant care and support which her 78-year-old grandfather (who is still employed) is unable to provide all by himself. As Pineda’s mother, the only other caretaker had to continue in-person work, Pineda had to leave the Brennan Center for Justice — a nonprofit law and public policy institute — where she had worked for almost a year and a half.
“The obvious solution was for me to take on a bigger role and take care of my grandparents full-time,” she said.
Since leaving, Pineda has been unemployed and searching for over a year. She’s soon starting as a paralegal at Rising for Justice — a non-profit organization offering legal help for housing rights cases — but will have to juggle full-time employment and caregiving despite the fact that her grandmother now receives hospice care.
While women overall have begun reentering the workforce – notably, though, at a slower rate than men — it’s not all just about how much someone makes.
“So much of the data out there only has information on whether people are working or not and maybe how much they’re earning,” said Harknett whose research focuses on schedule stability, worker health and well-being, and job quality. “There’s so much more that affects people’s quality of life and the rhythms of their family life.”
Among those bearing the brunt of the pandemic have been undocumented women who greatly contribute to the U.S. economy and oftentimes occupy public-facing jobs like farmers, nurses, grocery store workers, retail workers, and servers.
Kata Wallace* is one of the millions of undocumented women who experienced severe job insecurity throughout the pandemic. As a server and bartender in New York, NY, she was let go in March 2020 as restaurants and bars closed their doors. Already living paycheck-to-paycheck and unable to qualify for unemployment benefits, Wallace struggled to make ends meet.
“I thought to myself, I’m dead. How am I going to eat?” she said. “I felt like I had nowhere to go, like I was without a country. It was a really scary time.”
Wallace managed to stay afloat by persuading her landlord to cut the rent of all the tenants in her building in half, and severely budgeting the money she received from the GoFundMe her boss set up. She was eventually able to return to work, but still feels financially insecure especially as surging virus variants threaten to plunge the world in more death, suffering, and economic hardship. Wallace said that this constant state of hopelessness and uncertainty has taken its toll on her mental health.
Kushner and Pineda echo this sentiment, but also hint at shifting perspectives on work and productivity in the United States.
“No one ever really talks about the toll it takes to take care of someone else, especially someone terminally ill,” said Pineda. “It is physically and emotionally draining and the government provides little to no support. My life outside of work is more work, but it is work that I have chosen to take on because of my love for my grandmother. And her health and my health are always going to take priority over the workplace, and employers need to understand that. Our entire lives can’t revolve around work.”
“I can be loyal to work and be good at my job, but I have started to put up more boundaries,” said Kushner. “My mental health is much more important to me than being seen as productive all the time.”
For activists and experts like Wells and Harknett the path forward is clear: comprehensive federal action that would mandate affordable child, elder, and medical care, paid family and sick leave. Policy change like this at the highest level of government would not only address the issues at the root, but it would also hold employers accountable. While movement has been made to do just that with the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Act, and the proposed Build Back Better Agenda, which specifically outlines ways to provide affordable child- and elder-care, as well as ameliorate high housing and student loan, there is still a long way to go, and a need to meet people where they are, with the problems they have now.
“We can’t just rely on single employers that are trying to minimize labor costs,”said Harknett. “I really think the only way around this is to have a federal standard on wages, paid sick leave, schedule notice and so on. There have been proposals at the federal level, it’s just that there hasn’t been enough strong support. But there’s been some real movement around what these workers deserve. And I think the pandemic’s been part of that. So the time might be right for federal action. We’ll see.”
*This name has been changed for the protection of the individual
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