The return of full-time, in-office work—without full-time, in-person school and daycare—could push more moms out of the workforce.
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Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani is spearheading the plan, which is asking Congress and the White House to provide aid to working mothers.Since the beginning of the pandemic, an estimated 5.4 million women have lost their jobs, nearly a million more than men. Now, the number of women in the workforce is at a 33-year low. Black and Latina women have been especially hit hard, with unemployment within the demographic up to 50% higher than the national average.
With many schools and daycares still in flux, working parents are in a tough spot.
As vaccinations continue apace and Americans anticipate a summer reminiscent of their pre-pandemic days, employers are eager for a return to normalcy too. But their plans to bring workers back to the office are hitting a snag with one big group: parents.
Kassie Borba was a senior account director at a marketing agency in California when she had her first child. When the agency director, a woman, called all employees back to the office last year, Kassie asked for the flexibility to leave at 1 p.m. to pick her infant son up from daycare, and to finish her work from home. Instead, her employer restructured her title and duties, reduced her pay and notified her she would be part-time.
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“Why would I work for a part-time job, only to hand over my entire pay for someone to watch my brand-new baby?” Kassie says. “It didn’t make financial sense at all.”
“Here we are, a company run by women—shouldn’t we all be on the same page about what women have to go through in their careers balancing their home life and motherhood and their career?”
It’s a conundrum for many working parents, and especially moms, who have taken on the bulk of child care duties during COVID. While their manager might expect them to work regular hours from the company’s office starting this month, for many parents, their normal child care arrangements and support systems are still shuttered, reduced or irregular.
Care Is Still in Crisis...
Aroundin the past year. Many that remain open still operate with reduced hours or enrollment for safety precautions, like social distancing and deep cleaning, or due to staffing shortages.
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“The father held a phone right in front of mom’s face while in labor. I was like, ‘You’ve got this!’ and we were fully connected.”“Being an African American woman, I was always frightened of the thought of not getting the proper attention and care at the hospital,” recalled Barclay, 36, of West Palm Beach, Florida.
Finding affordable, high-quality child care was already challenging pre-pandemic. In the US, 51 percent of all residents live in a child care desert—any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots, according to an.
Yet it’s school—or a lack thereof—that remains the biggest burden for many working moms.
Research suggests moms werelast year. The picture has improved since then, but not fully. Only 67.1 percent of K-12 schools are open for "traditional in-person, everyday" learning, according to , a data service that specializes in aggregating school, government, library and community event information.
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Burbio defines “traditional” schooling as at least four days a week, for a little over 20 hours a week—far less than the standard 30-hour school week and definitely less than the 40-hour work week. The company doesn’t track after-school programs, but surveys by the Afterschool Alliance shows that in-person after-school programs were serving about.
Aside from inconvenient hours, other educational and logistical hurdles keep working moms more engaged in their kids’ schoolwork this year. Due to staffing shortages, some schools have only been able to offer what frustrated parents have dubbed, “Zoom in a room,” where students go to a school building to learn by laptop. Accordingly, many prefer to keep their kids home. In some areas, strict quarantine policies leave kids who ostensibly attend in-person school frequently learning from home. And some parents who initially opted for remote learning haven’t been able to switch to in-person.
That was the case for Deborah Mihal, a mom and state employee at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. In March,ordered state agencies to come up with “plans to expeditiously return all non-essential employees and staff to the workplace on a full-time basis.” Mihal, who had been overseeing her 9-year-old’s virtual schooling, requested to continue working from home but was initially denied.
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Overwhelmed and exhausted, more than one-third of moms have turned down promotions, switched to part-time work or asked for less job responsibility. More than a third of working moms are passing on pay and opportunities. Getty Robin Harris isn’t sure if she ever wants to go back to full-time work. A mom of two and sales account manager for a coffee roaster in Portland, OR, she scaled back to 24 hours a week last summer when she realized she couldn’t enroll her boys, 13 and 9, in camp as usual. Since the fall, when her sons returned to remote schooling, she’s been a part-time employee, part-time Zoom chaperone.
“She was not able to switch to what would have been a hybrid school arrangement, because the school isn’t allowing people to switch mid-stream, for the school’s own very valid logistical reasons,” explains Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU, which filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s order on behalf of its members.
The governor’s order, Sherwin says, was issued before all adults were even eligible to receive the vaccine in South Carolina.
“These workers had been deemed non-essential from the get-go, and, all of a sudden, it was arbitrarily mandated that they return to the office in-person,” she says. “Being there in person became essential but nothing changed between when remote work was authorized and when they were asked to come back. In fact, the health conditions and rates of transmission were much, much worse at the point the [return to work] order was issued.”
...But Employers Want Workers Back
There are signs that private companies’ patience with work-from-home arrangements has started to wane too. Kastle Systems, a private security provider, has been studying keycard, fob and app accessfrom the 3,600 buildings the company secures across 47 states. Occupancy has increased every week since April 7, and now stands at 26.5 percent across 10 major metro areas.
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Last week, JPMorgan Chase told US employees they are expected back to the office on a rotating basis by July, and that buildings will be open to all employees on May 17, subject to a 50 percent building occupancy limit,. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon “to make plans to be in a position to return to the office by Monday, June 14.”
Workers, by and large, prefer the current setup, or something like it. In a, 27 percent of employees said they want to work remotely full-time, while another 61 percent would like to work two or three days a week from home. Other surveys have revealed similar results.
But whether that desire will translate into a new remote or semi-remote work reality is yet to be seen.
Data from Australia points to a worrying trend: Male-dominated firms are more likely to insist on employees going back to their desks. Since Australian workers have started to return to their offices and the country publishes gender balance figures for every firm, Bruce Daisley, host of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast, was able to examine the relationship between gender and flexible working.
“We were able to see that the fewer women in the workforce, the more likely a firm was to introduce a stubborn office-based approach to work,” he explained in a. “The more male a firm, the less concession was made to working flexibly.”
Of course, a rigid approach to returning to the office is most likely to alienate moms more than any other group, “choking out diversity by cementing in less flexible working policies.” In other words, male-dominated companies might be exacerbating their diversity problems by pushing all employees back to their desks—or else.
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Fast Forward to Fall
Experts increasingly agree that offering near-normal, in-person school this fall will be key to getting moms back to work in the US, where. That’s especially true as more offices reopen. (One with decision-making authority or input on office space decisions found that more than 70 percent anticipate a return to the office before the end of this year.)
“It’s not enough to sort of open [schools],” economist Emily Oster told. “We are going to need to figure out how to make it possible to open normally.”
Whether that’s feasible is as much an open question as employers’ long-term embrace of working from home.
If the Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend three feet of spacing between students, it’s almost certain that some schools—particularly in urban areas where many students opted for remote learning this year—will find it difficult to comply when more students return to the building. “That’s the piece that could prevent traditional in-person [schooling] from occurring in many districts,” says Dennis Roche, president at Burbio.
In a press conference Monday, US Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told reporters that he believes there is a role for increased federal oversight for school districts that fail to reopen for in-person learning this fall.
“I’ve been really proud of the vaccination rollout since President Biden took office, and I anticipate there’s going to be a greater number of folks vaccinated by the fall,” he said in an exclusive interview with Working Mother after the press conference. “I also anticipate, as we know, the CDC guidance is constantly evolving based on trends and data, so we’re going to keep an eye on that. I also think we need to be creative between now and the beginning of the school year to make sure we’re thinking through some of these scenarios—have plan A, plan B, plan C, to get students in the classroom as much as possible.”
“We shouldn’t be waiting until the fall,” he continued. “If there are issues with getting students back into the classroom, where we know they learn best, we want to be partners with states and districts to problem-solve with them.”
Kassie Borba and Deborah Mihal were able to find solutions for their sticky situations. Kassie resigned, and is now a mortgage loan officer, working partly from home with a boss who offers her the “flexibility and understanding” she needs as a working mom.
Deborah was eventually offered an accommodation for remote work, but a lower court denied the ACLU's request to halt the governor's order on an emergency basis. The ACLU has appealed.
“Our decision to get involved here really is meant as a shot across the bow to show policymakers, governors and mayors,” Sherwin says, “that if they issue these types of orders without adequate support in place for child and dependent care, and for workers with disabilities, they’re going to face consequences.”
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Being a healthcare worker and a mother during the pandemic came with a set of unique challenges — and a new perspective on life. Denyce Nichols, M.D., Observation Medical Director In Winter Park, Florida "At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter. Taking care of acutely ill COVID-19 patients required a fast learning curve. At times you could feel defeated, as you tried every remedy available. Presently, I simply live each day because tomorrow is not promised.