The economy could lose a generation of working mothers

Kari McCracken loved her job managing a team as regional supervisor at a bottling company for Coca-Cola in Kentucky. “The people that I worked with and interacted with daily were like a family to me,” she said. She was getting ready to celebrate her five-year anniversary. It was where she planned to retire. There, “I knew that I had a bright future,” she said.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. McCracken was furloughed in early April but was told she’d likely be called back in June. Since schools had closed, her five children — ages 11, 9, 7, 3, and 2 — were all at home. The furlough at least allowed her to manage the “chaos” of it all, she said.

When her boss called in June, she said she could probably save McCracken’s position — if she could return to work in person within the week.

“My first instinct is to say, ‘Okay I’m excited to go back to work,’” she recalled. “It hit me after the fact that oof, I can’t go back, I don’t have a sitter.” Her sister, who had helped watch her kids in the past, wasn’t available. She requested unpaid leave so she could make arrangements but was denied.

Kari McCracken, a mother of five, was recently laid off from her job as regional supervisor at a bottling company for Coca-Cola.
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

Drawings made by McCracken’s children are attached to the fridge with a magnet from her previous job.
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

In April, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which included up to 12 weeks of guaranteed paid leave for workers whose child care or schools closed due to the pandemic. But it included a number of exemptions, including an exclusion for businesses with 500 or more employees. That applied to McCracken’s employer. “Had I worked for a smaller corporation, my job would have been protected,” she said.

Instead, she set about frantically calling anywhere and everywhere that might be able to offer child care, even just for a week or two. But with child care capacity reduced as a Covid-19 safety precaution, “nobody had anything remotely available.” In July, one in five child care centers across the country were still closed.

A few days later, she received an overnighted letter from the company saying that if she didn’t come back, it would consider her to have voluntarily resigned. Her last official day with the company was July 3. Coca-Cola Consolidated didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“It crushed me,” she said. She had always felt that the company cared about her, but the letter made her feel like “I was another number.” Because she wasn’t technically fired, she wasn’t eligible for severance pay, paid out unused time off, or job assistance that was offered to others who were laid off. She lost her health insurance just as she had hit the annual deductible.

A collection of Louisville Slugger bats McCracken has received in recognition of her work performance. “I’m not sure what to do with the awards,” she said. “I don’t want to look at them, but I also can’t throw them away.”
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

McCracken is part of a mass exodus of women from the paid workforce — the likes of which the country may have never seen before. In August and September, 865,000 women left work altogether; in September, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force than a year earlier. There are fewer women employed or looking for work, and more women simply sitting on the sidelines of the labor force, than anytime since 1986.

Some of the pain has been caused by intense contractions in the places where women, and in particular women of color, work: service industries like restaurants and retail that had to shut down, as well as state and local governments whose workforces are predominantly female and Black but are facing severe budget cuts.

Women are also being squeezed out of the workforce by the vice of yet another remote school year, lack of child care, and the inability to take paid time off work to care for their children.

Then there is the nagging, ingrained expectation that, even in a supportive heterosexual partnership, the person who is supposed to sacrifice their career to take care of the children is the woman. Even though most mothers work outside the home in non-pandemic times, they are also almost always the default caretaker when family needs to be cared for.

In August, the federal monthly jobs report showed that even as employment began to rebound, women in their prime working years actually left the labor force, on net. And in September, more women left the labor force than any other month on record other than April, the peak of the pandemic.

“I was prepared for pretty grim stuff,” said Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress who has been tracking the numbers. “In August, it started to look much grimmer.”

He had assumed that the exodus from the workplace would be more limited, perhaps just for mothers of elementary-aged children who are still too young to do remote learning on their own. “It’s a lot more broad-based than that,” he said.

Women are bearing the brunt of having to choose child care over work

The monthly jobs data is noisy and liable to revisions, so no single month can determine a trend. Still, it lines up with other data. In one national survey, 13 percent of working parents said they had lost a job or reduced their hours due to lack of child care. That survey was conducted in the late summer.

“If that was an issue in the spring, you can imagine how bad that is at this point,” noted Betsey Stevenson, an economist and professor at the University of Michigan. In August, nearly half of manufacturers said child care constraints were making it hard to bring employees back or hire new ones.

It’s mothers who are bearing the brunt of abruptly losing child care and school. Mothers of young children have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers during the pandemic. An August analysis found that young mothers were nearly three times more likely than fathers to say they couldn’t work due to school or daycare closures. Among parents whose children are ages two to six, mothers were more than four times as likely to leave the workforce as fathers.

Anecdotally, A Better Balance, a nonprofit focused on women’s workplace rights, is getting calls to its legal hotline “all the time” from women who have been pushed out of their jobs due to caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic, said vice president Elizabeth Gedmark. In the beginning, many people simply weren’t aware of the FFCRA’s paid leave, and the organization could help them assert their rights. But many others were carved out altogether — not just at large employers, but also at those with fewer than 50 employees, and health care workers. As the pandemic drags on, they’re also getting calls from people who were able to take the leave but have now run out. “That is an increasing problem as virtual schooling is so predominant in the country,” Gedmark said.

And while families may have muddled through the spring, whatever they did to make it work may just not be feasible anymore. “We’ve all been doing somewhat unsustainable things for seven months,” Madowitz said. “You can only do three jobs with two people, or two jobs with one person, for so long.”

Carrie Westenhofer had worked at a bank for five years when Covid-19 hit, and because banks were deemed to be essential businesses, her employer required her to keep reporting to work, even though she thinks she could have easily done her job from home. When her four children’s three different schools all went remote in the spring, she adjusted her schedule so that she was working part-time. After she left for work at 7 am, her now-husband would supervise the start of school until he left for work at 11 am, at which point they paid a friend to come help. Westenhofer would leave work at noon and take over for the rest of the day. “It did not work. Unless the whole plan was for us to go insane — that worked,” she said with a laugh. “It was just a disaster.”

Carrie Westenhofer, a mother of four, was recently laid off from her position at a bank after being denied a request to work part-time.
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

School ended in June and she went back to full-time, and that worked for a while. But when she found out school would once again be remote in the fall, she asked her supervisor if she could go back down to part-time hours. While her supervisor agreed, the market president refused. When Westenhofer took the issue to human resources, she was told there was nothing they could do and was chided that employers were also having a hard time.

Like McCracken, Westenhofer looked into the paid leave offered under the FFCRA, but her bank also has more than 500 employees, so she realized she wasn’t eligible. The only thing the company offered her was to work in retail banking part-time, a position that wouldn’t come with any benefits. They wouldn’t hold her current position for her after the pandemic. It would have put her right back where she started five years earlier. “That was a huge slap in the face,” she said. That’s when she decided to quit; her last day was August 21.

It was “difficult to process the fact that they had no loyalty to me after five years of loyalty to them,” she said. “To be treated like I literally could be replaced instantly was hard.” And while she knows she’s doing work watching her children all day, it’s been difficult not to contribute financially to the household. She’s worked since she was 15 and this is the first time in her life when she isn’t working outside the home.

Westenhofer’s husband is a dispatch manager at a trucking company who works long hours. Though he offered to figure out a way to make it work, ultimately, he makes more money than her. “It wouldn’t have made sense for him to leave work,” she said.

McCracken was in a similar situation. Her husband is “very supportive” of her having both a career and being a “super mom,” but just as she was furloughed, his job as a director for GE Appliances in the washer and dryer division became far more demanding. Even before Covid-19, his salary was nearly twice hers. Having her be the one to step back made financial sense; otherwise they risked not being able to pay their bills or keep their house on her salary alone. They couldn’t even afford his taking a leave of absence.

Carrie Westenhofer says it’s been difficult not contributing financially to her household.
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

Mothers today still spend twice as much time caring for children than fathers do.
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The gender wage gap likely plays at least a partial role in women being the ones to duck out of work in the face of an impossible dilemma. Across the economy, women who work full-time, year-round earn 82 percent of what men make. Black women make just 63 percent of what white men make; Latinas make 55 percent. “On average, we know that women are being paid less than men, even when they’re at least as qualified,” Madowitz said. “If you’re going to lose a large fraction of your income, you probably want to keep the higher paying of the two jobs.”

But beyond the cold, hard numbers, there is also a powerful social expectation that women are supposed to be the ones to care for children — and to sacrifice their careers if the two come into conflict, no matter how supportive their husbands are. “I’m not sure what caused it, but I definitely felt like this was my thing to tackle,” Westenhofer said. “[My husband is] an extremely good team player. But I just have this drive to handle it myself.”

Even as most mothers work outside the home and their families increasingly rely on their paychecks, they are still putting in much more time on child care. Mothers today still spend twice as much time caring for children as fathers do, and actually spend more time on child care than women in the 1960s — even though they’re also working more. The attempt to make everything work can fail, pushing them out of the labor force. The professional penalty women pay for becoming mothers is a big driver of the gender wage gap to begin with.

Since leaving the bank, Westenhofer has been applying for remote work, and has accepted a customer service position that starts on November 2. Her hours will be 3:30 pm until midnight. She’ll still have a stretch in the evening when she’ll be juggling work while watching her children before her husband gets home. Because it’ll be done over chat, and the school day will end just as her workday starts, she hopes she can make it work.

The women’s recession could impact a generation

Women will almost certainly suffer career setbacks and lost wages from the pandemic. A new report from the Century Foundation and Center for American Progress estimates that if current conditions persist, their families will suffer $64.5 billion in lost wages per year. When women drop out of the workforce, “the consequences are actually really grave,” Stevenson said.

She hopes that, if such a large number of women have been pushed out all at once, “there will be safety in numbers” and employers won’t be able to exclude all of them when the economy recovers. But we could still have “a generation of women left behind,” she said. “A decade from now their kids will be grown and they will still be bearing the scars of the Covid pandemic.”

“It’s not a question of whether women are set back in the workplace,” Gedmark said. “It’s a question of how far back will we go: 10 years, 15 years, 20 years?”

The effects won’t stay sequestered in individual families. Women flooding into the paid workforce between the 1970s and the 2000s increased GDP by 11 percent. Women have spent years graduating college at higher rates and investing in careers that contribute to economic growth. If we “drive a bunch of people out of not just the labor force, but the long-term career paths they’re on, that’s going to have significant consequences for how fast our economy grows,” Madowitz said.

“If you don’t send all the women back, you can’t have a V-shaped recovery,” in which the economy quickly bounces back from the depths of the pandemic, Stevenson said. “We couldn’t fully recover if we don’t bring them back.”

While Congress extended paid leave through the FFCRA for parents whose children have nowhere to go, the exclusions meant only about 20 percent of workers were eligible. Meanwhile, many state and local governments have rushed to reopen bars and restaurants without prioritizing the safe reopening of daycares and schools, when those could have been prioritized instead. “We should never forget that that was a choice that we didn’t make,” Stevenson said.

The exodus may only just be beginning. After seven months of desperately trying to make it work, some women may be ready to throw in the towel. Leigha Thomason was sent home to do her job as a certified medical assistant at a mental health clinic just as her two younger children’s schools went remote in the spring. “It was incredibly overwhelming,” she said. “I was having to learn a new job.”

Meanwhile, her children weren’t even given instruction online when schools shut down — they were sent home with giant folders full of paperwork and told to complete it. Thomason, whose husband works as a truck driver and is gone until the evenings, found herself trying to juggle helping her children complete schoolwork while helping her patients. “I felt myself going crazy sometimes,” she said.

McCracken eats lunch with her children. She says this is the first time, since she was 15, that she isn’t working outside the home.
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

Westenhofer hugs her daughter Stella. She says she eventually wants to go back to work.
Morgan Hornsby for Vox

Her employer eventually agreed to give her 80 hours of time off, which she spread out over five weeks. But she was denied the extra 10 weeks allowed under FFCRA. “That was very discouraging and felt like a slap in the face,” she said. She thought about quitting, but reasoned that her family needed the money.

After starting school remote this fall, her children have gone back to full-time, in-person. But if schools close and go fully remote again — even if it’s just temporarily to deal with a cluster of Covid-19 cases in her district — and her employer still refuses to give her time off, she’ll probably quit. “My kids at that point do come first,” she said. “I’m not going to sit here and deprive them anymore than I have to, like I did in the past.”

For McCracken, “basically, my life is on hold,” she said. After Covid-19 cases rose in her state, the governor delayed the opening of in-person school, so all of her children — including her three-year-old — were doing remote learning at first. It was only a few weeks ago that two of her kids started attending some days of the week. Everyone else is home full-time. “I don’t even know how I haven’t fallen apart yet,” she said. “You feel like you’re taking on this all by yourself.”

She’s looking for other work, but it’s not easy to find the right thing. There aren’t many jobs that pay what she was making before, but she needs to make enough to be able to cover the cost of child care if she goes back. “It’s like I have to start all over,” she said, and she’s not sure she wants to start at the bottom and work her way up again.

“I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into my career,” she said, and had “defied all odds” to pull it off with five children in a male-dominated industry. “I was so proud of that. To be an example to my girls especially, to show them that you can be a mom and you can work.”

For now, she said, it makes the most sense for her to be a stay-at-home mother. “I eventually will go back into the workforce, I believe that,” she said. “I just don’t know when.”

She added, “I had so much to offer and so much potential.”


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