Like parents across Nevada, Grecia found herself attempting to work from home and watch her young child after schools were shutdown in mid-March.
She tried to come up with a system where her 5-year-old son could mostly entertain himself and ring a bell if he needed something. But the novelty of that quickly wore off for a kindergartner who didn’t understand the concept of a pandemic or social distancing or mom needing to take work phone calls.
“We had about one week of success before it was really stressful,”says Grecia, who requested she be identified only by her first name so she could speak candidly. “I was divided between work and my son. It makes me feel really guilty, like I gotta pick one. Do I do a good job or be a good parent?”
Women in the workforce have always struggled with that balance. Academics have long documented the so-called “second shift” of unpaid household chores and caregiving that typically falls to working women in mixed-gender relationships. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought that burden to a seemingly impossible extreme by stripping away two crucial societal supports: education and childcare.
While Nevada deemed childcare facilities essential and allowed them to remain open, many closed voluntarily due to concerns about public health or reduced demand caused by historic unemployment and government urging people to shelter-in-place. Some of those childcare providers will never reopen, which will only cause problems for working families as the economy recovers and people go back to work.
Meanwhile, Clark County School District closed its campuses in mid-March and lacked the resources to quickly pivot its approximately 320,000 students online. That put the burden on parents to become overnight replacements for licensed educators who spend years crafting their ability to effectively teach. For the upcoming school year, which begins Aug. 24, the district has promised resources for students and actual instruction from teachers. But all of it will happen remotely, creating an issue for working parents whose children are too young to stay home alone.
Social scientists and progressive advocates say these challenges are falling on the shoulders of working women who will be more inclined to reluctantly leave the workforce due to cultural norms and the economic reality of gender pay gaps. One team of researchers found mothers of young children reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers at the start of the pandemic.
Further exacerbating the issue is the fact that industries with higher shares of female workers, such as hospitality and the service sector, are being hit hardest by the current recession. The opposite was true during the Great Recession.
In April, at the peak of covid-related business shutdowns, the national unemployment rate for women was 16.2 percent and 13.5 percent for men. Since then, the female unemployment has remained higher than the male unemployment rate. In May, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told 60 Minutes, “The people who’re getting hurt the worst (by the downturn) are the most recently hired, the lowest paid people. It’s women to an extraordinary extent.”
Women make up 64 percent of the the 40 lowest paying jobs, according to the National Women’s Law Center. These jobs include child care workers, home health aides, restaurant servers, cashiers and housekeepers,
“We need dual-headed households economically just because of the cost of living,” says Tiffany Tyler-Garner, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Alliance of Nevada. “If either of those members has to sit out of the workforce because of lack of childcare, that changes their trajectory long term.”
Then there are single-parent households that will deal with additional burdens. More than two-thirds of mothers in the lowest-wage jobs are the sole or primary breadwinners, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
For Grecia, uncertainty looms. She gave birth to her second son in July and is currently on maternity leave, but that ends in October. Her baby has a spot saved for him at a daycare, something she secured with a deposit pre-covid. But she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to return if CCSD is still doing remote learning. She doesn’t want her first grader to fall behind. Her husband outearns hers three times over, so him staying home with the kids isn’t financially feasible. Her parents in pre-covid times helped watch her son after school while she worked, but they don’t have the internet. Even if they did, they might not be able to facilitate learning.
“I couldn’t put this on them,” says Grecia.
And so it falls on her.
“I understand it’s a choice I have to make for my family but it’s a very hard one,” says the 25-year-old mom. “I’ve been working since I was 15. It took me a long time to get where I was in my career and all of that will be gone. I’m going to give up my job and I don’t even know… When I could go back, will there be a job? Because there’s so many people out of work. They’ll find someone else to fill my position. It’ll be very hard to get my position back. It’s overwhelming.”
She’s seen some postings about possible day camps that will facilitate remote learning. She’s not sure how that’s safe if physical classrooms are not.
“It’s still really uncertain,” she adds. “I usually try to be an optimist but it seems like at every turn something blindsides you.”
Grecia isn’t alone. Local social media groups for moms are filled with posts from women asking for leads on work-from-home jobs or scouring for resources to help their children.
The Current publicly asked women to share their experiences during the pandemic. One woman, a military wife whose husband is currently stationed elsewhere, recently lost her sitter and is now relying on her parents to rotate weekly between their home in California and hers in Nevada, with the kids going back and forth between states. “It’s all I have at the moment,” she said.
Another left her job because her children are struggling with remote learning and the lack of socialization with friends. “We live on lots of prayers,” she added.
Managing dual, often conflicting roles of worker and parent has physical and psychological impacts on parents, says Tyler-Garner.
“Until we develop systems that honor those conflicts and those challenges, we leave folks at a place of ‘shoulding.’ Shoulda been able to do that. Shoulda been able to do this.”
Some of the policy priorities being pushed for in light of the issues created by the pandemic include affordable childcare, flexible scheduling for jobs that allow for it, consistent scheduling from employers who schedule in shifts, and paid-time off and expanded family and medical leave. During the 32nd Special Session held earlier this month, the Nevada Legislature through Senate Bill 3 expanded the “good cause” reasons why a person receiving unemployment benefits can turn down suitable work. One of the newly permitted reasons: “The person is caring for a child who is unable to attend school or a child care facility because of COVID-19.”
“We need to own the issue as a community issue,” continues Tyler-Garner. “There is a flexibility that we should all be fostering, whether it’s through businesses and family-friendly policies, or just giving each other permission to not be everything to everyone in our lives.”