Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers

Pandemic Could Scar a Generation of Working Mothers

Working during the pandemic has meant very different things for Virginia Dressler and for her husband, Brandon.

As Mr. Dressler, a delivery driver, continued his routes near their home in Newbury, Ohio, Ms. Dressler spent her days caring for their 3-year-old twins. Only after her husband came home at 6 p.m. could she turn to her job as a digital projects librarian at Kent State University, finishing her eight-hour shift from home about 2 a.m.

Later, Mr. Dressler was furloughed and took over some of the child-care responsibilities. But now, with the economy reopening, the prospect of being summoned back to campus fills Ms. Dressler with more anxiety: Day care centers are just starting to reopen, with restrictions, so who will take care of their children? “All of these things are spinning around in my head,” she said. “We’re trying to come up with Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.”

As the pandemic upends work and home life, women have carried an outsized share of the burden, more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day care. For many working mothers, the gradual reopening won’t solve their problems, but compound them — forcing them out of the labor force or into part-time jobs while increasing their responsibilities at home.

The impact could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.

“We could have an entire generation of women who are hurt,” Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan, said of pregnant women and working mothers whose children are too young to manage on their own. “They may spend a significant amount of time out of the work force, or their careers could just peter out in terms of promotions.”

Women who drop out of the work force to take care of children often have trouble getting back in, and the longer they stay out, the harder it is.

The economic crisis magnifies the downsides. Wage losses are much more severe and enduring when they occur in recessions, and workers who lose jobs now are likely to have less secure employment in the future.

“Even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back,” a recent report from the United Nations on the impact of the coronavirus on women warned.

The setback comes at a striking moment. In February, right before the outbreak began to spread in the United States, working women passed a rare milestone — making up more than half of the nation’s civilian nonfarm labor force. Still, they do a disproportionate share of the work at home. Even among married couples who work full time, women provide close to 70 percent of child care during standard working hours, according to a recent report. That burden has been supersized as schools and other activities shut down and help from cleaning services and babysitters has been curtailed.

“This pandemic has exposed some weaknesses in American society that were always there,” said Ms. Stevenson, a former chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, “and one of them is the incomplete transition of women into truly equal roles in the labor market.”

Parents in the United States have nearly doubled the time they were spending on education and household tasks before the coronavirus outbreak, to 59 hours per week from 30, with mothers spending 15 hours more on average than fathers, according to a report from Boston Consulting Group. Even before the pandemic, women with children were more likely than men to be worried about their performance reviews at work and their mental well-being and to be sleeping fewer hours.

The inequities that existed before are now “on steroids,” said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University. And since workplaces tend to reward hours logged, she said, women are at a further disadvantage. “As work opens up, husbands have an edge,” Ms. Goldin said, and if he works more, his wife is going to have to work less.

Ellen Kuwana, 51, was working 32 hours a week at her dream job, doing scientific communications for biotech companies through a strategic communications firm, as well as putting in up to 15 hours a week as a freelance science editor.

The pandemic, though, meant her husband, a pediatric pulmonologist and professor in Seattle, was working more than his usual 80-hour work weeks. Her 17-year-old daughter had to take her Advanced Placement exams and college tours online, and her 19-year-old daughter came home from the University of California, Los Angeles. Ms. Kuwana has been buying groceries for her parents, who have been in lockdown in their independent living facility. She also began running a volunteer effort that has delivered more than 12,000 meals to front-line workers.

In April, Ms. Kuwana quit her job, the best-paying work she’s ever had. She was spending more than eight hours a day hunched over her laptop at her kitchen table for work, and then another six hours for the volunteer effort, which she did not want to abandon. The effort aggravated the tendinitis in her right elbow.

“It’s a crazy time to quit a job, but it was a lot: the same workload, but the work conditions had changed, the level of anxiety had changed and so had the amount of distraction,” she said. “I had to get to the point where I admitted to myself that I couldn’t do it all.”

“But so much of my identity is tied up with my professional work that it was hard for me to let that go,” she added.

Family responsibilities as well as lower wages have always pushed women in and out of the work force. Women often leave or lose jobs to care for a sick child or aging relative. Meager wages make the work-home trade-off harder to justify, even if the loss of a second paycheck may lower a family’s standard of living. In countries that offer more comprehensive support for families — like Germany, France, Canada and Sweden — a significantly larger proportion of women are in the labor force.

And with day care centers and summer camps closed, and health concerns lingering about grandparents and others who often make up the informal network of backstop child care, some working women will have no choice but to give up a job. Nor is it clear whether schools will open on a regular routine rather than staggered or part-time schedules when the fall term begins.

For single mothers, the pressure is intense.

Karin Ann Smith’s paycheck barely covered her expenses when she was working as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Education. She had medical bills for her 13-year-old son, who has a condition that leaves him constantly fatigued and pained, as well as student loans for her two graduate degrees and $1,650 a month in rent for an apartment in Jupiter, Fla.

After Ms. Smith, 52, was laid off in mid-March, she was often so overwhelmed that she hid in her bathroom with the shower running to catch her breath. She did not receive unemployment insurance until two months after applying, and then only after sending messages to every state employment worker she could find on LinkedIn. Her landlord threatened to evict her until she wrangled rent assistance from the county. Her $500 in savings quickly evaporated, and she applied for food stamps and sold some old toys on Facebook, even taking small donations from sympathetic strangers on Twitter.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.