This unprecedented global pandemic has highlighted a host of gaps in our economy and society. From the slim margins of restaurants to the lack of savings Americans have to confront a sudden loss of employment, COVID-19 is the great litmus test of this generation. The systems … businesses, and even marriages that were set up to fail are doing just that.
Nowhere is this more true than with our current childcare and education system in the United States. COVID is exposing the ugly truth about America’s education system. While it’s purportedly there to educate our youth, in many families it is also a much needed daycare parents count on in order to sustain their employment.
According to recent data from the Census Bureau, roughly one in five (18.2%) working-age adults said the reason they were not working was because COVID-19 disrupted their childcare arrangements.
That’s the case for Mary Eliza McRae of Raleigh. She lost her job as a sales director for a North Carolina Brewery at the beginning of the pandemic. The state’s craft beer industry is among those hit hard by COVID-19, so finding a job in the same field will be a challenge. On top of that, McRae now has to factor in that she has children at home she needs to help during the day with virtual learning.
“I’ve given up on my dreams as there is no such thing as a dream brewery job for me anymore. So I’m probably ending my 17 year career in the beer industry and looking for something else, somewhere else. Thanks, Covid! Thanks for pushing me out of the beer nest,” she shared.
Jennifer Lindenberg of Charlotte has two children and feels like she may have some tough decisions to make in the coming months. She works part time as a designer, but now finds herself working more than 40 hours a week because of demand. On top of that, she has two children doing virtual learning, one of whom has ADHD.
“It’s hard for her to stay engaged. I have her desk set up next to my desk. It’s the ultimate in multitasking. I’m trying to do conference calls and meet deadlines and then I’m checking on her, making sure she gets on Zoom calls,” said Lindenberg.
Lindenberg is able to work from home, and has decided she’s going to give the set up a few weeks before she might choose to take a break from her career for a while.“I know I’m not the only one. I don’t make enough for it to be worth it for me to hire someone to help,” she shared.
Recent information from the Census also indicates it’s women feeling the impact above their male counterparts.
Of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands. About one in three (30.9%) of these women are not working because of childcare, compared to 11.6% of men in the same age group.
“My husband has a demanding job. He’s working from home, but there is no way he could do this. Maybe it’s that 1960’s mentality, but women are able to split our brains in five different areas,” said Lindenberg.
Kelly Hughes of Charlotte sees both sides of the issue – from an employer perspective and a mother of three. An attorney, Hughes represents employers, and feels lucky that her client roster is made up of companies trying to do the right thing in this crisis.
“I work with some amazing companies that are truly progressive and they have been working to do their part to minimize the pay equity divide between men and women,” she said.
But add a pandemic that highlights inequities at home, and Hughes admits it’s a struggle to keep the playing field level.
“What they’re struggling with is keeping some of their female employees as some of them leave to take on caregiving. Companies know we need this talent, and are trying to find ways to support them,” said Hughes.
Hughes says many of her clients are moving to flexible work schedules, reduced hours, and in some cases the directive that their employees just need to meet their obligations, even if that means they’re not technically working 40 hours a week just to keep the talent they have.
But Hughes admits, “It’s almost impossible to find a solution to help them feel that they’re getting their job done and can care for their children.”
According to a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution, 26% of American workers have at least one child at home under the age of fourteen. The same analysis estimates that as many as 29% of working parents are in industries that requires them to be physically present at their jobs.
Hughes acknowledges that’s a big problem. At her firm, she’s the co-chair of the retail practice group, and says while those employers recognize that their employees are critical and essential, they cannot operate without them present on the job.
“This does make it more challenging, and typically those jobs are associated with individuals who are lower wage and lower skilled.”
And often, the critical, service-industry jobs are filled by people of color, who are feeling the impact of the pandemic in disproportionate ways. As of mid-June, Black Americans have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 at a rate about five times that of white Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. There’s a number of factors that contribute to the alarming trend. More black and brown people work in essential jobs where they’re exposed to the virus, there’s less access to healthcare – meaning they’re not seeking treatment as soon as they should, and often they’re living in multi-generational households where people in at risk age groups are contracting COVID from younger household members.
Hughes says it’s a concern that’s on the radar of her clients.
“They’re concerned as they move to opening back up, they’re concerned about losing their employees who are people of color in the workforce. I truly do think that COVID is going to set employers back with respect to a lot of the advances that have been made to pay equity.”
For many like Lindenberg and McRae, it’s taking it one day at a time that keeps them going.
Lindenberg’s firm has told employees they’ll be working from home through January, and after that the decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, which she says offers her little comfort.
“I felt like I didn’t get a no – but I didn’t get a yes – it was like a, ‘well, we’ll evaluate it – and we’ll see.”
As for McRae, she’s started waiting tables at night because it’s one job that doesn’t conflict with her childrens’ school schedule, and continuing to look for a permanent job with her marketable skill set.
“I am giving myself hours each morning to look for a job as if I was going to work. I put the kids into their rooms and on their Chromebooks by their school start times, and then I go into my computer and start searching.”
No one can predict just what the workforce will look like after this pandemic is behind us, but some are surmising the workforce may never look the same. An increase in work from home jobs is one possibility, but that will require adjustments to the country’s childcare structure because as any working parent can tell you, caring for children while working from home isn’t a long term solution.
And Hughes offers her clients this advice:
“This is not the time to be making the assessment over whether remote work is feasible.
If employers have a negative experience with it – this is not the time to evaluate it. Typically kids will be in school.”
And that promise of a light at the end of the tunnel, whenever it comes, is what’s getting many of us through the day.
Stephanie Carson is a corporate video producer and journalist in North Carolina. In her spare time, she helps her husband with his hard cidery and serves as a “Ski Mom” to her two daughters who race competitively.