When the pandemic hit, Richmonder Kari Altizer was a financial adviser about to give birth to her first child, a boy, at the end of March.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to make enough money to afford day care. My clients were dropping off. And I wasn’t sure where I wanted my baby to go during the pandemic. I didn’t know what was safe,” Altizer said.
She decided to quit her job and stay home with her son — a decision that many women are having to make during the pandemic when demands of work, child care and the coronavirus are causing women to leave the U.S. workforce in record numbers.
Experts are calling it the first female recession. For the first time, women are falling behind in the U.S. job market after decades of progress.
Women account for 52.6% of job losses between February and August, or 5.6 million jobs, according to data released this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since February, there are 2.6 million fewer women in the labor force. In September, 617,000 women dropped out of the workforce, in comparison to only 78,000 men.
Unemployment has been especially hard on Black and Latina women, with the unemployment rate above 10%, while the rate for white women is 7.3%, according to data from the Labor Department.
At the end of July, almost 1 in 3 mothers ages 25 to 44 reported they weren’t working because of COVID-19-related child care issues, compared to around 1 in 10 fathers.
Despite the fact that women have been nearly equal participants in the workforce for 50 years and earn more advanced degrees (including bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees) than men, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, they still earn less money on average than men — and shoulder the brunt of household and child care responsibilities at home.
“Women earn 81.5 cents to the dollar that men make,” said Renee Haltom, vice president and regional executive at the Richmond Federal Reserve. “The economic choice usually falls to the woman to stay home.”
Plus, women still bear a disproportionate amount of work at home. Women spend 30% more time than men on household activities and twice as much time caring for children as fathers, Haltom said.
When child care centers started closing in March, many working moms found themselves having to make a difficult choice.
When Allison Miessler’s day care for her 2½-year-old daughter shut down, she didn’t know what to do. She was working full time in the city’s clerk office, a job she’d held for almost two years. She was able to work from home, but also had to occasionally go into the office. Her days were busy: filled with Zoom calls, projects and deadlines. Her husband works at Virginia Commonwealth University in development and was also able to work from home, but had a similar hectic schedule.
They had to move in with her parents in Louisa County for five months just to have help with child care. But as the months wore on and the difficulties continued, Miessler knew her current job and family responsibilities didn’t align anymore.
After six years building her present career, she decided to pivot and in July took a part-time job with a nonprofit that allowed her more flexibility and time with her daughter.
When her day care opened back up in August, her daughter was able to return. But when it reopened, it raised prices. Before the pandemic, her child care cost was around $1,120 per month; after, it went up to around $1,400 per month. Nationally, the average cost of child care has increased 47% during the pandemic, with smaller groups, heightened sanitation needs and additional staffing as factors in the rising expense, according to data from the Center for American Progress.
And like many child care centers in the area, it offers only full-time care, so Miessler and her husband are paying for full time, even though they’re using it only part time.
“I feel like I’ve taken a step back in my career. I never thought I would go part time and not be moving up in salary. This was a different route that I didn’t plan on taking,” said Miessler, who is trained as a social worker.
But she values the flexibility her new job offers.
“I like working part time right now. And there is a possibility to get more hours in the future,” she said.
For single mom Tiffany Gray, mom of two twin boys in eighth grade, the pandemic has been tough. She is a clerk for the United States Postal Service, and her hours can be long. Some days, she works from noon to 10:30 p.m.
Her children are in virtual school, and she has to leave them home alone. She fields phone calls from her kids and from their teachers during the day, but she has to rely on them to get their own schoolwork done.
Sometimes she has to call them and remind them to turn their cameras on. Sometimes the teacher reaches out and lets her know that one of her sons was sleeping during class. She is juggling, constantly juggling, her responsibilities as a mother and a provider.
“I get calls all day long,” Gray said.
She wears a pair of AirPods and talks to her kids and their teachers while she works. She said her boss knows about her situation and has been supportive.
Like many parents, she doesn’t know when Richmond Public Schools will go to back in-person classes, but she hopes it’s sooner rather than later.
In June, economists confirmed that the U.S. is currently in a recession.
In a recent speech at a women’s summit in West Virginia about the economic impact on women during the pandemic, Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said women are necessary for economic growth.
“[O]ur best opportunity [for economic growth] is to bring more women into the workforce — and retain them. And there is untapped potential, as just over two-thirds of prime-age adults not in the labor force are women,” Barkin said.
But faced with such issues as lower pay and expensive child care, “for many … women, the fundamental economic equation just didn’t make sense,” he said.
The pandemic is especially hard on single mothers.
“Balancing work, child care and virtual learning seems utterly impossible for single parents and workers who can’t work from home,” Barkin said.
Jennie Wood is a divorced single mom of two girls, ages 5½ and 8. She had been working freelance as a consultant for the past two years in business services and events. But during the pandemic, events evaporated, and she knew they wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.
“I also saw that I wouldn’t be able to work in an office because the kids weren’t going back to school,” Wood said. “As things opened back up, I was not able to find anything affordable that allowed me to work around my kids.”
In Virginia, the average cost of a baby for a year at a day care is more than $14,500, according to Child Care Aware of America. For older children up to age 4, the cost is around $11,500. That’s about as expensive as a year of college.
She was jobless for four months and was able to draw unemployment. Through a connection, she finally landed a part-time job as a senior strategist in a marketing firm owned by a single mom.
Remote work and flexible schedules are the norm in her new position. Wood splits custody with her ex-husband, which also meant she had two days to devote to work without the children.
“We all work around our kids [at my new job]. No one looks at you sideways if you have to go somewhere,” Wood said.
Just last week, her daughters returned to school in Goochland County for five days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. But that still leaves entire afternoons where she needs child care. Just this week, she had a job arranging flowers for an event and brought her girls with her. They played on their iPads while she worked.
Wood said working moms need more support: whether that’s from the government, the state, the community or their jobs.
“Some kind of child care subsidy would have helped,” she said. “I live across from the Y. I would have loved to have been able to send them for part of the day, but it costs $150 per week per kid. An extra $1,200 a month [for child care] isn’t doable for a lot of people right now.”
Many experts worry that women stepping back from the workforce will have long-term consequences such as continuing the gender pay gap, missing out on promotions and learning new skills, and loss of job growth.
For Kari Altizer, who quit her job as a financial adviser when she had her baby in March, she worried about money while being out of work. Her husband is an operations manager at a local restaurant who took a month of paternity leave and then was furloughed for a month. She worried how she would make up her income. How would she pay the bills?
When a former client reached out to her asking if she knew of anyone looking for work, she offered herself up for the job. It was in a different field and in a different position: as the sales and marketing manager of The Maid Brigade.
“I never thought I’d work for one of my clients or for the cleaning industry,” Altizer said. But the new job offered things her old job didn’t. It was a growing industry, and they offered to pay for day care or allow her to bring her baby to work.
“I work with my baby every day. I bring him to the office. He’s growing up around a work environment,” she said.
Her office now doubles as a nursery. She has a desk and a laptop for herself, as well as a playpen, a jumper and a high chair for her son. But it hasn’t been easy, and it also means she’s doing two jobs at once.
“It’s an adjustment to have my baby crying [in the office] and for my co-workers to be okay with it,” she said. Since the coronavirus, she thinks that co-workers have become more understanding of other people’s challenges, especially child care for working parents.
And that could be a silver lining for working women who have been asking for more flexible, supportive work environments for years.
“I do think there might be a cultural shift, not that it outweighs all the costs women have incurred [during the pandemic],” the Fed’s Haltom said. “We’ve undergone this great experiment with COVID. We’ve discovered by force that working remotely or more flexibly has worked out quite well.
“Some workers may never go back into the office. Or on a limited schedule like two days per week for collaboration. No one has any idea where this will settle out. But I will be shocked if there isn’t greater flexibility [for working women].”