Briona Patterson was a supervisor at her job for more than a year when she became pregnant; her son was born two months before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020. But when she attempted to return to work after maternity leave, she was beset by new anxieties over the pandemic.
Patterson was worried about putting her newborn in daycare, even with safety protocols like temperature checks and masks for caretakers.
“They can do all of those things, but things are still going to slip through the cracks,” she said. “Things are still going to come up because you can’t control what people do outside of [the daycare].”
Patterson left the workforce at the earliest opportunity.
“At first, [my employer was] talking about people voluntarily furloughing so I had obviously volunteered,” she said. “I figured, with me just having the baby, that put me in the league for somebody that would be able to furlough.”
Patterson waited for the pandemic to subside and collected unemployment in the meantime. She’s still waiting, unsure when or if she’ll feel comfortable enough to return to work.
“Jobs just don’t pay enough,” Patterson said. “If unemployment is paying more than what you make at a job, that should tell you something about that employer.”
Patterson is one of the 4.2 million women nationwide who left the workforce between February and April of 2020 — and she’s one of the 2 million women who are still out of work.
Women across the country lost jobs at a higher rate than men during the pandemic and also have returned to the workforce at a much slower rate. That drain is “in large part due to an unexpected caregiving burden,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told a White House press briefing May 7.
At the briefing, Yellen pointed out the “lack of support for people as they raise children and care for older relatives.
“Our policymaking has not accounted for the fact that people’s work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked, and if one suffers, so does the other,” she said. “The pandemic has made this very clear.”
Kristen Blessman, president and CEO of Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, said some women reach a tipping point where “it’s not worth it to work anymore because [child]care is more expensive than the amount that you’ll bring in by being at work full time.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in January 2021 that 705,000 mothers who left the workforce during the pandemic will not return.
Shannon Block, executive director and chief digital officer for the Markle Foundation in Colorado, collaborates with other organizations to help unemployed and low-wage workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Overall, childcare is not just a family issue, it’s a business issue,” Block said. “It affects why we work, when we work, how we work. A third of America has a child under 14.”
Another barrier for women trying to return to the workforce: Companies often put “noise” in their job postings, Block said. For example, before the pandemic, only 20 percent of executive administrators in Colorado had a four-year degree, Block said. Now, among job postings for that position — a role many companies are allowing to go remote — 92 percent require a four-year degree. For women applying without the required education, Block said, “the robot screens you out.”
Block has seen employers list job opportunities intended for displaced mothers, but the “noise” in the postings prevents mothers from filling the vacancy. Block thinks employers list these requirements in ads because they want certain qualities in a worker — “grit and determination,” for example. But she says there are other ways to demonstrate skills and qualities besides a degree.
“Let people express to you how they demonstrated that skill set,” Block said. “One way they might have demonstrated it is by doing a four-year college degree,” but Block wants employers to know they, “might be surprised what you find if you don’t jump to the conclusion that that’s the only way that someone could have demonstrated that skill set.”
Blessman said the chamber is partnering with Metropolitan State University of Denver to research and build a report for employers that examines the issue of women, specifically mothers, returning to the workforce. So far, the research has painted a gloomy picture. Nearly half a million more women left the workforce than men since February 2020.
“To be fair and honest, none of the numbers surprise me,” Blessman said. “The leaky pipeline, as we like to call it, has always been a problem for women in the workforce and what the leaky pipeline means is that women get to a certain level of leadership in an organization and then they drop out.”
Blessman speculates that this often happens right before reaching senior management.
The Employers Council advises firms, both large and small, on issues such as bringing women back to the workforce.
Jenny DeFranco, a human resource consultant for the Employers Council, said she tackles the issue with employers by running through a series of options such as remote work or creating a jobshare. A jobshare is when there is one full-time position with the hours divided among two or more employees. The employer only pays a single full-time wage, but several employees get to at least work part time. Jobshares can be used to add flexibility to a worker’s schedule.
George Russo, director of the Southern Regional Office of the Employers Council, says jobshares are not new. Employers were able to create jobshares previously, but the option is “becoming a bigger focus now because of the pandemic.”
Blessman says she has not seen jobshares used a lot by employers during the COVID-19 pandemic. She says jobshares don’t offer enough money to be a viable employment solution for a lot of working mothers.
Russo said another potential solution he has seen employers implement is to increase remote work capability. With that increase, Russo advises employers to be “understanding that you might hear kids in the background.”
He has also discussed employers allowing children into the workplace.
Employers could create a designated play area for children in the office. Beyond that, Russo has heard employers working together, especially in office buildings with multiple organizations, to create onsite childcare. He says offices composed of smaller companies might not be able to afford onsite childcare the way larger organizations can.
“You need to get buy-in from all the organizations [that are] available and then there’s going to be a cost that hopefully is [lessened] due to the number of organizations,” Russo said. “But I think that there’s a return on that cost ... if organizations are losing women in the workplace, they’re losing a valuable asset and so there is a return on that cost.”
DeFranco says it is best to partner with an organization who has experience with onsite childcare, because there are a variety of issues and complications to navigate such as liabilities and licensing. Partnering with an organization could make addressing those issues easier.
“Once you’ve committed to doing it, it is just getting the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed to make sure that everything is in place so that you keep your liability down for having the daycare center within your building,” DeFranco said.
Russo said employers are learning to be less rigid in their requirements for employees to return to the in-person workspace.
DeFranco said she too was accustomed to being in the office and had to make an adjustment to life from home in the beginning, but has now found advantages to remote work.
“I am extroverted,” DeFranco said. “I enjoy working with people. I enjoy the camaraderie. I enjoy the water cooler talk. [Now], I love working from home. I never thought I’d love working from home and when we were forced to go into our homes to work, it was an adjustment. But now I love my commute. I walk a few steps to my office. I don’t have to pay so much money on gas.”
DeFranco says that, “because of Zoom, because of all that we use, Microsoft Teams, we have such great ways to collaborate,” and that has led her to wonder if employers will utilize a hybrid model to satisfy employees’ need for flexibility.
DeFranco thinks employers embracing these online collaboration tools will serve their companies well with retention of employees, especially mothers in the workplace.
She says there was a widespread idea that society was beyond women being the primary caretakers. Defranco says the COVID-19 pandemic “just really showed that was not even close, and so we need to adjust to make sure we are accounting for the fact that working parents, working mothers, carry a really big load and childcare is a pretty important part of that.”