By Brian Skinner, Esq.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended work and home life for everyone, but women in particular have carried the largest share of the burden. A recent article in the NY Times highlights the heavier domestic burden borne by women caused by the pandemic. Including, the fact that they are more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day care. But as the economy begins the slow process of reopening, many working mothers are finding that the difficulties they experienced working from home while providing close to 70% of child care responsibilities, are not solved, but compound. And the impact could last a lifetime, reducing their earning potential and work opportunities.
Recent economic research indicates that the effects of the pandemic on working mothers is likely to be persistent and will have a disproportionate negative effect on women and their future employment opportunities. But the research also indicates that even beyond this immediate crisis, there are opposing forces which may ultimately promote gender equality in the labor market. First, businesses are rapidly adopting flexible work arrangements, which are likely to persist. Second, there are also many fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for child care, which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in house work and child care.
Although the pandemic has exacerbated the impact of an increase in family responsibilities and lower wages for most women, this was the case even pre-pandemic. Women often leave or lose jobs to care for a sick child or aging relative. Low wages make it more difficult for women to justify the work-home trade-off when the potential gains of a second paycheck are negated by child care expenses.
But despite the hard choices facing many working mothers, the economists who authored the study cited above, suggest that increased pressure on families could force structural and cultural changes that could benefit women: a better child care system; more flexible work arrangements; even a deeper appreciation of the sometimes overwhelming demands of managing a household with children by partners stranded at home for the first time.
They note that it should be kept in mind that “the challenges for families during the current crisis are unprecedented, severe, and falling disproportionately on those least able to respond, such as low-income single mothers.” They argue that the immediate challenge is to formulate policy responses that acknowledge the specific challenges women are likely to face during the coming crisis and they recommend the following:
- Government subsidies to replace 80% of employee pay for workers who need to provide child care during the crisis due to school and daycare closures and are therefore unable to work, conditional on a continued employment relationship (i.e., workers can return to work immediately after the crisis).
- Work requirements for government assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid should be removed until school and daycare centers re-open, and time off work now should not count towards future work requirements. Unemployment insurance should remove the requirement to be actively seeking work over the same period.
- Unemployment benefits should be extended to workers voluntarily separating from employment to provide child care.
- Universities should extend tenure clocks for faculty members with children under age 14, with similar provisions for other employers with up-or-out promotion systems.
- Companies should be encouraged to waive billable hours targets tied to bonus pay for 2020 for women with children under age 14.
Although these recommendations are not intended by the authors to be a comprehensive list, they do address some of the specific challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on working mothers.
There has already been some recognition by the private sector of the disproportionately negative effect that the coronavirus outbreak has had on women. Companies like Salesforce, PepsiCo, Uber and Pinterest recently signed a pledge to offer more flexibility and resources for working parents, and many businesses have softened their stances on telecommuting. Staggered shifts and less business travel are also likely to become more common.
And it also worth noting that countries that offer more comprehensive support for families, such as Germany, France, Canada and Sweden, have seen a significantly larger proportion of women in the labor force.
Policy makers at both the state and federal level should consider these recommendations as they will allow women to keep their jobs and avoid consequences that would otherwise follow them for many years.
Brian Skinner is the former counsel to the West Virginia House of Delegates Committee on the Judiciary and counsel to the West Virginia Senate Minority Caucus. He has over a decade of experience as an adviser to legislators on legal and political issues related to pending legislation; providing research and legal analysis services to legislative committees; and preparing bills, resolutions, amendments, and other documents for the West Virginia Legislature.