Will schools’ coronavirus reopening plans knock moms out of the Pittsburgh workforce?

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Mother helping child with schoolwork. (Photo via iStock)

(Photo via iStock)

As district officials across Allegheny County continue to discuss whether or not schools will reopen for in-person learning this year, students and teachers are facing a lot of tough choices.

But another question largely left unanswered — one with the potential to have a lasting effect on the state of society and the economy — is how school district decisions are going to affect working mothers.

Single working moms may have no option but to leave their jobs to watch their children. Working mothers in two-parent households may also be kept home as they often bear the brunt of child care over a male partner.

Some of the largest local employers — but not all — are considering or updating policies concerning telework and flexibility to allow for child care.

Recent research shows why these considerations are necessary and how eschewing them could set back the gains women in the workforce have made.

“I’m definitely seeing where women are simply deciding it’s all too much and they’re leaving the labor market. And that’s really scary to me because of the cascading effect,” said Megan Rose, the director of Squirrel Hill-based Center for Women.

Pre-pandemic, women outpaced men to become the majority of jobholders in the United States for only the second time in history. Studies show that gender diversity in the workforce results in greater productivity and has a positive economic impact. 

Still, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2019, 96.2% of employed fathers worked full time as compared to 78.5% of employed mothers.

Coronavirus is setting women back

Even in 2020, women continue to report that they take on not only the majority of housework but also child care. A study from Washington University in St. Louis shows the pandemic is exacerbating that disparity.

“Even among [heterosexual, two-parent] households in which both parents are able to work from home and are directly exposed to child care and housework demands, mothers are scaling back to meet these responsibilities to a greater extent than fathers,” said Caitlyn Collins, assistant professor of sociology in arts and sciences and co-author of the study, which includes information from about 60,000 households across the United States. 

If schools don’t re-open, the situation is not likely to improve, the study stated. Women cutting back at work could lead to them leaving the workforce altogether or result in men being rewarded disproportionately in the future for their commitment.

The problem is even greater among Black and Latina populations. For example, since stay-at-home orders began, more than 75% of Black mothers spend more than three hours a day on housework, compared to just more than 50% of white women; the average Black mom has done 12 more hours of child care per week than the average white mother. 

A joint study from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich found that women during the pandemic did more child care than men at every income level, whether parents worked inside the home or outside. When it came to homeschooling, women did more than men when parents worked from home, but men did slightly more in lower income brackets when parents worked outside the home.

‘A very vivid nightmare’

With the possibility of children remaining at home this year, many working parents are considering hiring a nanny or forming a “pod” with other families where parents take turns supervising education and basic child care. Both present risks and may have less regulation than what school district will impose on teachers and other employees. But nannies and pods are not necessarily a feasible option for single moms or moms with shift work.

One single mother from the East End, who asked for her name to be withheld for fear of retribution from her employer, said she doesn’t know what she’ll do this fall if her daughter’s private school doesn’t reopen. She’s a single mother with no nearby family who can help with child care, and her supervisor is insisting she perform her work in person even though other employees are teleworking. 

When stay-at-home orders began and her daughter’s school closed, the two set up a routine: Mom would start work with a federal agency at 8 a.m., set her daughter up with a class Zoom call at 9 a.m., connect her with a pre-recorded video from the teacher at 10 a.m. then help her with the school assignments while checking work email. Her daughter had a final Zoom meeting at noon, then after lunch, Mom would fully settle into her work day. 

“Sometimes my work would go until 7 o’ clock, and then it would basically be time for her to go to bed,” she said. “The days were really long. But we got it done.”

School ended for the year on a Friday in May, and she was relieved but proud she hadn’t missed any assignments at work or at home. She spoke with her boss, who requested she return to the office the following Monday. 

“I said, ‘School is over, but I don’t have child care,’ and he said, ‘It’s the yellow phase now. Daycares are open.’”

But her child had aged out of daycare and many summer camps were closed due to COVID-19. The summer camp she planned to send her daughter was set to open in mid-June, so she requested to continue teleworking until then.

Her agency informed her she could take the two weeks of sick leave at two-thirds of the employee’s pay provided under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

It wasn’t an ideal option.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to take a leave. I want to work,’” she said. “I was in the middle of all these projects … I ended up taking the two weeks and I still worked during that period. I was working at two-thirds of my pay. I was supposed to be off, and I was still working. And it was really awful. And I still haven’t recovered financially from that.

“The expectations are set up for two-parent households. It’s not set up for solo-parent households … It’s discriminatory.”

Stephanie Lewis has four children at home, ranging from age 2 to 16. (Courtesy photo)

Stephanie Lewis has four children at home, ranging from age 2 to 16. (Courtesy photo)

Stephanie Lewis, the director of Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time [APOST], an initiative of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, has been working to figure out solutions. 

APOST, which provides resources for after-school and summer programs as well as a database of more than 800 providers for families to search, is looking at ways to implement a sort of pod model for families who can’t afford to form one.

“We’re having very early conversations trying to figure out how we could … lean on some of our Out-of-School Time providers and childcare providers to provide these small, all-day learning groups for students while their parents work,” she said. 

APOST is also exploring ways to connect students with virtual tutors. “We’re thinking about that, too, how that could best be rolled out to the public,” she said.

Lewis’ own family faced challenges after schools closed in March with four children ranging in age from 2 to 16 at home. She works in a director role and her husband is a CEO, so they’ve been able to telework but are never really “off the clock.”

“It’s been a real struggle to give them our attention, so just being mindful to give them all we can,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with this more recently, more so than at the end of the school year. I’ve even been having that mom guilt — I have this opportunity now where I’m working from home and technically I’m around them more than I have ever been, but still feeling distant and I’m not doing enough for them.”

She’s considering beginning a full-time homeschool program to accommodate all four children — the youngest two were set to begin preschool this fall. 

“It’s just a very vivid nightmare that we’re just trying to figure out and take it one day at a time,” she said.

How are local employers, from UPMC to 4moms, responding?

According to findings by the Society for Human Resource Management, a global HR membership organization, 32% of employers planning to reopen in-person work have outlined childcare plans. For companies that have already had employees return to in-person work, 42% do not have a dedicated plan to help employees with childcare concerns.

“Flexibility is key right now,” Washington University’s Collins said. “By easing work demands and allowing flexibility where possible in the coming months, employers can prevent long-term losses in women’s labor force participation. And fathers should be encouraged to provide more hours of care for their children, even if it means sacrificing paid work hours to do so.”

UPMC, the state’s largest non-governmental employer, which employs more than 90,000 people, provided the following statement for this article: “UPMC continues to monitor school district decisions and the impact to our employees as the upcoming school year approaches.”

The City of Pittsburgh, which employs about 3,200 people, offered a statement saying: “The City is very mindful of the child care concerns facing not only our employees but our residents generally … We don't have any exact plans for the fall as of yet however,” spokesperson Timothy McNulty wrote in an email. 

PNC, which employs about 52,000 workers across 42 states, wrote in an email that employees who are able to work from home continue to do so and the company has plans for a gradual return-to-work approach that “will consider the responsibilities and care issues that we know employees have outside of the office, including child care needs that may emerge as schools determine their re-opening plans for the fall.” 

Marcey Zwiebel, director of corporate public relations, also noted in an email that PNC recently partnered with Trying Together, a Squirrel Hill nonprofit that connects families with early learning resources, to host a virtual childcare fair to connect employees with childcare options for all ages. Pre-pandemic, the company offered other programs and resources for working parents as well as back-up child care, she noted.

Kevin Zwick, a spokesperson for the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in an email that the university is working with an unspecified organization to provide a tool for finding child care; and supervisors, deans and department chairs are “encouraged to provide maximum flexibility to faculty and staff who cannot obtain child care due to a COVID-related school or care center closure.” 

At 4moms, which makes high-tech baby gear, a spokesperson said the Pittsburgh-based company is “doing (and will continue to do) everything we can to support our employees and their families” including a work-from-home-policy that currently extends through August. The company has held numerous focus groups with employees to understand the benefits and challenges of working from home.

4moms also offers an open paid-time-off policy for employees to take when needed.

“We do recognize that this is a very stressful time for parents and are not only producing products to help that working parent, but also give our working parents the flexibility they need while they continue to transition to this ‘new normal,’” wrote Amie Ley Stanton, the company’s director of brand engagement.  

A transformative moment

Rose, the director of the Center for Women, a project of the National Council of Jewish Women (Pittsburgh Section) and Jewish Women’s Foundation, said she’s seen an increase in the number of women signing up for workshops on everything from preparing for back-to-school in the COVID age to financial basics.

The Center for Women, where programs are free and open to anyone identifying as a woman, also offers a mentorship program and financial coaching, all with the goal of helping women find, increase and better manage their incomes. 

But overall, Rose worries about the toll the pandemic is taking on women.

“I’ve definitely seen parents who have the ability to get their work done whenever are able to be a lot more successful, but they’re also the ones that are burning the candle at both ends,” she said. “So on the one hand, offering flexibility is important, but I think it can blur the lines between when you’re working and not working.”

Megan Rose, the director of Squirrel Hill-based Center for Women, thinks that moms will bear the burden of e-learning. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Megan Rose, the director of Squirrel Hill-based Center for Women, thinks that moms will bear the burden of e-learning. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

She holds out hope it could be a “transformative moment” in the workforce where employers look less at the amount of hours employees spend in an office and more at their work output and where telework will be recognized as a viable option, but it’s also putting women in a bad place.

“We make less or our jobs are more flexible or both, so if somebody’s productivity has to take a backseat or somebody has to be in charge of the e-learning, I think it’s going to be moms,” she said. 

“...If women don’t ascend to these decision-making seats in times like these, then we’ll continue to see inflexibility and policies that work for only certain people.”

Lewis said she’s worried about the larger societal issue as well. 

“Just being a mom, we just do what you have to do to make sure the kids are good, and … I can see our workforce shifting to fewer and fewer females in the workforce and [I’ve been] thinking about how that will change our society. Not in a feminist way, but that frightens me. I don’t want to see that happen. I think it’s on the horizon.”

Lauren Davidson is a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at laurenkaydavidson@gmail.com or on Twitter @laurenmylo.

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