I had a conversation with my niece recently. She was telling me about the difficulties she is having juggling work and the needs of her four-year-old daughter. Her workplace is being impacted by the omicron wave of the pandemic. Nearly half of the workforce is out of work, and they are counting on (pressuring) her to work more hours for coverage. The problem is her daughter’s daycare and preschool don’t match any of the hours she is expected to work. She tried calling a dozen friends and family, but she can’t find a consistent, daily solution that matches the demands of her job. A far-too common dilemma for a working mom.
Did you know that nearly three million American women have left the labor force over the past year? Before the pandemic, women made up more than 50 percent of the country’s workforce, underlining their importance to the economy. But that number has dropped sharply as many women, particularly mothers of young children, have left the workforce. Let’s not forget that many were furloughed or laid off in 2020. Like my niece, many remaining in the workforce had to choose between showing up at front-line jobs or caring for their children who, with daycare centers closed and schools being hybrid or remote, would otherwise be left without supervision.
Recent federal employment data shows that women’s participation in the labor force declined, while men’s stayed flat. The data also reveals the persistent pay inequality, undervalued work, and antiquated notions of caregiving. Caregiving is not a family problem in our country as much as it is a woman’s problem.
The urgent need for child care at home has also pushed other working mothers, with spouses or partners earning more than they do, to withdraw from the workforce in order to take over child care responsibilities. The situation worsens in single head-of-households.
As demonstrated in my niece’s story, employers need these workers. A large component of workforce shortages involves the loss of these workers. Take a moment and think about all the workplaces you’ve seen displaying hiring signs and advertising shortages. Who were they? Who usually filled those jobs? Women, and women of color in particular, overwhelmingly occupy so-called essential jobs at nursing homes, hospitality, and grocery stores, for example, which require them to physically show up to work.
These are usually low-paying jobs. Many are also parents with young children at home who need constant care and oversight. They can’t work from home, but their kids are at home. Their answer has been to drop out of the workforce entirely.
There is an ongoing child care crisis in the U.S., and many look for federal and state-run initiatives for help. Private employers must make changes to help the situation. The pandemic has exacerbated and shed light on a longstanding problem, which is the lack of policies that enable primary caregivers to balance caregiving responsibilities and work responsibilities.
The pandemic has also put the spotlight back on the caregiving work that for years women have been counted on to provide, often for little or low pay. Caregiving is still perceived as a female function. There are still outdated, but persistent, views of women in the workplace. Corporate conversations (though no one will ever admit this publicly) still involve the notion that women are only vital to the workplace so long as their parenting needs don’t get in the way. Corporate policies that provide scheduling flexibility and policies that support working parents are key to attracting this vital workforce.
Low-wage jobs usually lack paid benefits, including paid time off, and these are the workers that need these benefits the most. Child care subsidies can help with rising child care costs. Human resources departments can line up resources for child care and participate in corporate nanny care programs.
Caregiving should be viewed as the norm rather than a unique job perk. Caregivers shouldn’t be punished with derailed compensation, lowered bonuses, and being passed up for promotions. Pay inequities must be addressed. Moreover, the workplace culture should include allowing parents to openly include family discussions along with work objectives. Acknowledge they are deeply tied to each other.
Are we learning any lessons from our current workforce shortages? Employers need to bring back and retain their female talent, otherwise, our future economics will be compromised. The ROI will support the costs. Employers need to be intentional about creating an inclusive workplace with policies necessary to support not only women but our families.
By Rose Miller, Senior Director of Strategic Relationships, GTM Payroll Services
Reposted with permission from GTM (www.gtm.com)