Wendy Chun-Hoon can relate to the juggling act so many working parents of young kids have faced since the pandemic first hit.
Now the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, the mother of two school-aged children had to take a step back from her work to help care for her family. And as the nation went into lockdown and began learning to live in a sort of permanent limbo, it was suddenly made obvious that there were economic consequences to a lack of care infrastructure in America, she told a group at the NCSL Legislative Summit.
During a session titled “Women in the Workforce: The Pandemic Impact,” Chun-Hoon said the unemployment rate for adult women in April 2020 was 15.5%.
“That’s the highest rate that’s ever been recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in 1948,” she said.
We have tons of data showing that women still take up the majority of caregiving and household work—that is the unpaid work, but still work. You couple that with a lack of care infrastructure and 3 million women have suddenly gone from the workplace. —Wendy Chun-Hoon, U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau
According to Chun-Hoon, the pandemic intensified conditions the nation already faced, including a gender wage gap caused, in part, by a deeply segregated workforce where women are concentrated in many of the economy’s low-quality, low-paying jobs. It also shone a light on women’s outsize home responsibilities.
“We have tons of data showing that women still take up the majority of caregiving and household work—that is the unpaid work, but still work,” she said. “You couple that with a lack of care infrastructure and 3 million women have suddenly gone from the workplace.”
Even as Americans return to work and with schools reopening in September, Chun-Hoon said, there are still 1.3 million fewer moms who are employed than before the pandemic started.
Moms With Young Kids Hit Hard
“Among parents hardest hit have been mothers with kids under 13,” she said, noting that declines in employment for mothers were more than twice as large as for fathers. “Black moms experienced the steepest decline in employment between February 2020 and September 2021. … They’re also the parents who are least likely to have things like paid leave and telework and flexibility and affordable child care. So, all to say, women’s labor force participation is absolutely impacted by the lack of access to paid leave and workplace flexibility, and specifically it’s very closely tied to the availability of child care.”
As recently as September, according to Chun-Hoon, 4.4 million women with kids younger than 5 reported that their household had experienced a child care disruption in the past month due to the pandemic.
“The gender gap between mothers’ and fathers’ employments actually widened 4 percentage points compared to those that had access to in-person learning and those whose kids didn’t go back to school full time,” she said. “So, these are very real conditions that are still having a large impact on women’s labor force participation.”
While stable child care arrangements are critical to women’s labor force participation, Chun-Hoon added, the sector itself and the workforce in these jobs are not stable. She said 95% of all U.S. child care workers are women, and a majority are women of color. They also receive among the lowest wages of any occupation, are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line, and about 8 in 10 child care providers are experiencing staffing shortages.
U.S. child care workers receive among the lowest wages of any occupation, are more than twice as likely to live below the poverty line, and about 8 in 10 child care providers are experiencing staffing shortages.
“I do feel like as a society we’ve had blinders on regarding the true costs of our lack of care infrastructure,” she said. “Women’s home and family responsibilities and the norms and the stereotypes that codify these are big drivers of occupational segregation. … The pandemic has provided us, though, a really huge inflection point where more and more folks are understanding the disadvantages of setting up our economy in this way. We know we cannot return to what it was before. It has to be different.”
Maryland House Deputy Majority Whip Kriselda Valderrama (D) spoke of the Time to Care Act she has put forth in the Legislature for the past three years, and plans to submit again during the state’s upcoming session.
She said the family medical leave bill would provide a partial wage replacement for Marylanders who need time away from the workplace because of personal issues such as serious illness, pregnancy, the adoption of a child or to care for a close relative.
Valderrama shared that she introduced the bill because of her own personal experience.
“I lost my mother four years ago,” she said. “Had legislation like this been in place, I think it would have been helpful. Do I think it’s the full answer? No. But for many pieces of legislation you have to start somewhere.”
Child Care Trends
The child care field was also discussed in another Summit session, “Reviving, Rebuilding and Reinvesting in Child Care,” with speakers noting the pandemic has made it clear to more people just how vulnerable it is, but also how significant it is to state and national economies.
Other emerging themes:
- Children are part of a family economic unit.
- Many child care programs that closed during the pandemic have done so permanently.
- Finding infant and toddler care remains a significant challenge for families, due to a shortage of slots and providers, and it is the first to be cut when funding is not available.
- There is a child care workforce crisis due to low wages and no health care supports.
- Reimbursement rates through the Child Care Assistance Program remain low in many states.
- States are trying to figure out how to make wise use of an unprecedented level of temporary federal funding to rebuild and strengthen child care.
- Legislators must decide how to allocate funding in ways that do not create financial cliffs (that is, more financial insecurity) for child care providers.
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.