Pandemic forcing exodus of women from workforce
Lack of childcare forcing many to step back from jobs
LAUREN SONALKAR was working as a part-time science teacher in the Lincoln Public Schools before the pandemic. A week before school started this year, the district offered Sonalkar a job working full time, teaching a small class of fourth graders in person.
Sonalkar lives in Arlington, where her first-grade daughter was given the opportunity of hybrid or remote schooling, and the family felt remote learning would be a more consistent option. Sonalkar also has a 3-year-old in a part-time nanny share and needs to be available to help her mother, who has a disability.
“When they told me I’d have to be full time, I was like I can’t do that,” Sonalkar said.
Sonalkar’s husband works in finance, and the family relies on his income more than hers. She felt her only choice was to take a year-long leave of absence from her teaching job.
Sonalkar has company – a lot of company – among Massachusetts women who have had to adjust their work situation due to a loss of childcare.
According to data from the Federal Reserve, cited by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation in recent legislative testimony, the labor force in Massachusetts in August had 143,840 fewer workers than pre-pandemic, a decline of 3.9 percent. While the reason for the drop in Massachusetts is not documented, national data indicate that 80 percent of those leaving the workforce during the pandemic are women.
“This suggests that the growing child care crisis is forcing mothers to stop working or seek(ing) employment,” the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said.
The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women released a report Thursday detailing the staggering negative impact that a lack of childcare and schooling for kids is having on women in the workforce, with particular harm to lower-income women. More than half of the 4,000 women surveyed for the report said the lack of child care prompted them to reduce their work hours or consider reducing their hours and 21 percent considered quitting their job. Thirty-nine percent of women reported their job performance was affected by childcare responsibilities, and 42 percent believe their employment opportunities will be negatively affected.
The shift has major long-term implications for the workforce, the economy, and for the earning power of individual women.
“It’s really going to be huge in terms of not only the economy and the labor force and available workers, but it’s also going to be dramatic to women and both their current financial stability as well as their long-term financial security,” said Jill Ashton, executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.
“What was clear from the testimony is that working mothers and parents are at their breaking point, “the report says, adding that the choices working parents are making “are often made out of desperation.”
Virtually all the woman who responded said their children’s education or childcare arrangements had been changed by COVID-19, which is unsurprising since the virus forced schools and daycares to close for months. Even today, few schools are back in person full time. Schools have often made plans at the last minute, leaving caregivers struggling to adjust work schedules.
One Somerville survey respondent described the last few months as “insane.” She added: “So many women in my community are at the end of their rope. They’ve had to quit jobs they love or that their families need to survive because it’s been too tough to find childcare.”
A Needham respondent with two children doing remote learning wrote, “When the school changes its opening plans less than 10 days before the start of school, how am I supposed to make plans to get a new full-time job?”
One Haverhill woman wrote that she cannot think about switching jobs to advance her career because she needs the flexibility that comes with staying with her current company. A Shutesbury resident said she deferred graduate school to homeschool her child.
With job uncertainty comes financial uncertainty. Forty-five percent of respondents – and 56 percent of essential workers – said changes in educational and childcare arrangements negatively impacted their financial security. Women with household incomes of less than $100,000 and essential workers, who are often low-income, faced more financial insecurity than women in wealthier households or in jobs not considered essential. Essential workers are those in fields like health care or grocery stores who cannot work remotely.
Because Social Security earnings are tied to wages, time away from the labor force also impacts retirement income.
Women also reported being incredibly concerned with their child’s social, emotional, and educational well-being and with their own. Nearly 90 percent said they worried about their child’s social and emotional well-being, while more than 60 percent said changes in childcare arrangements impacted their own mental health.
Four of 10 essential workers reported concerns about having to leave their children unattended while they work.
Denella Clark, chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, citied studies published after Hurricane Katrina closed schools for months that indicated it took women years to catch up in the workforce. One study by Tulane University researchers found that two years after the hurricane, women’s participation in the workforce was down 6.6 percent, compared to 3.8 percent for men.
Clark called the effects of the loss of childcare on women devastating. “We’re seeing more and more women are losing their place in the workplace,” Clark said.
Clark said the struggle can be particularly challenging for essential workers and low-wage workers who must choose between going to work to put food on the table and staying home to help a child with virtual learning.
But Ashton noted that while the decisions are different for women of different jobs and socioeconomic status, “What was consistent across the board is that all working parents are really struggling quite dramatically right now.”
Policy recommendations in the report include: extending unemployment benefits to cover childcare, expanding subsidized childcare vouchers and access to childcare, providing paid leave for parents to care for children, protecting workers’ jobs if they have to take leave or need flexible hours to care for a child, and incentivizing employers to offer on-site childcare, scheduling flexibility or financial support. It also recommends additional funding to help childcare providers stay in business.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser said earlier this week that 5,500 daycare programs are now up and running, about 70 percent of pre-COVID capacity. But some survey respondents noted that some programs had to raise prices due to increased costs, making them unaffordable to lower income parents.At a legislative briefing on the report, Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat and the Senate chair of the Education Committee, said there is already evidence of women leaving the workforce. “I think there’s a lot of concern about what that means for longer term career development, pay equity, and the many advances women have made in the workplace,” he said.
Rep. Tami Gouveia, an Acton Democrat and the mother of two teenagers, said she is particularly worried about the mental health toll the pandemic is taking on working mothers. “The things women shared about being at their breaking point, I see it and I hear it in the voices of my friends, and I live in a pretty well-to-do community where we have a lot of resources,” Gouveia said.