Working mothers at risk of dropping out of workforce in record numbers due to COVID-19 pandemic

Advocates calling on employers for flexibility
Posted at 3:50 AM, Jul 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-21 07:32:32-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Concerns are growing about record numbers of working mothers dropping out of the workforce because of childcare concerns throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates are now calling on employers to support families by offering flexible workplace options, subsidized childcare and more.

During this pandemic, many mothers are being forced to put their own and their family’s health at risk to provide for their family and are also shouldering increased caregiving responsibilities as schools and other care providers have closed, according to a fact sheet from the National Women's Law Center.

Women are predominantly spending their days cooking, cleaning and caring for their kids, according to research by OxFam America, a non-profit organization working to help fight poverty.

Lauren Clements, a working mother in Tampa, scaled back at work during the pandemic to care for her young daughter. The decision, while tough, made sense because Clements' husband is now the primary breadwinner of the household.

Lauren Clements, a working mother in Tampa, opted to scale back at work during the COVID-19 pandemic to care for her young daughter.

But now, she is struggling to stay competitive at work and remains concerned about her future job opportunities.

"Everything is kind of on my shoulders," Clements said. "Then, I'm trying to work during nap time and I'm working until midnight to try and make up eight hours of a day."

Now, there are serious concerns about women like Clements being able to fully re-enter the workforce once the pandemic comes to a close.

"They're not spending their days as much as they could be working, looking for jobs or education," said Mara Bolis, associate director of women's economic rights at Oxfam America. "So this is just going to continue to deteriorate.

Bolis said in what she's seen from past recessions, as jobs come back online, women's re-entry into the workforce, always tails that of men.

"I think that the income gains that women have made are going to slide back decades to the 50s," Bolis said. "Then, re-entry is going to be a nightmare as men and women have to compete for the scarce positions that exist."

The vast majority of working mothers—about three in four, work full time. Many working mothers are the sole or primary breadwinner for their families, writes the National Women's Law Center.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed how the work performed primarily by women, and particularly women of color, has long been and continues to be undervalued, even as the rest of the country is depending on it as never before, according to a factsheetfrom NWLC.

Many essential workers are women also. Nearly 35% of all registered nurses and nearly 28% of all childcare workers are mothers with children under the age of 18, according to NWLC.

"Women are the shock absorbers for economies for our societies," Bolis said. "Men are pitching in, but they're not pitching it enough to take the burden off of women who, as schools remain uncertain, as daycare remains uncertain, we're going to drop out of the workforce and record numbers."

Now, advocates like those at OxFam America are calling on employers to better support working parents through workplace flexibility so employees can take better care of their children during this time.

"It is critical that employers signal that that flexibility can be taken up by their employees and that the employees will not face retribution," Bolis said. "Signaling to employees that they do not only have this benefit, but they're encouraged to take it is critical."

However, Bolis said she is seeing some promising trends with employers finding ways to support employees with kids through their benefits programs by providing easier access to daycare, including subsidizing childcare expenses.

"There are things that we can do that employers can do right now, to ease this for men and women," she said.

Clements said while her workplace offered her flexibility, her husband's employer didn't offer much. She said that extra support would make a huge difference in their daily family life.

"That flexibility basically would have afforded us a happier family," she said.

Flexible options for working parents will be even more necessary as the reopening of schools across the United States remains uncertain as COVID-19 continues to spread across many states, Bolis said.