It’s being called the “she-session,” the “mom penalty” and the “mom-demic.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of women in the workplace has dropped by 1.8 million since the start of the pandemic, with the number of women working hitting its lowest level since 1988.

The reasons include a lack of child care, including changes in policies at those facilities, and increased fees.

Back in 2020, when school was supposed to start in September, 863,000 women left the workforce. Men did, too, but only 168,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The choice to walk away because of child care needs and the disproportionate loss of jobs was more predominately female than male,” Robert Eyler, an economist at Sonoma State University, said of decisions being made in the wake of the pandemic.

Melissa Parker, 27, of San Rafael didn’t have the choice to stay unemployed. The single mother was determined to work in order to care for her 3-year-old daughter, Katalina Jaraillo.

Pre-COVID Parker was a self-described entry level worker at an accounting firm. Even though she had been there two years, the company laid off everyone except the higher ups.

She said she was suddenly out of work and without day care because it temporarily closed at the onset of the pandemic. When the center first reopened only children of essential workers were accepted; Parker didn’t qualify.

She adapted, but said it was awkward at times having to interview for jobs virtually when her toddler could be seen standing behind her.

Parker now works for a plumbing company. However, in October she used up all of her sick time to stay home when Katalina was ill. Even though she is at the same day care facility in her hometown, it changed the rules by not accepting any sick kids, even if it’s just a cold.

Even with vaccines for more children expected to soon, it’s anyone’s guess if the “no sick child” rule will be permanent or if infants and toddlers will be allowed to be inoculated against this virus. More rigid rules have consequences. It means parents unable to go to work. It means employers coping with fewer workers on any given day.

Parker’s job requires her to be at the office and she can’t leave a toddler home alone.

Working part time isn’t an option for most people. Besides the loss of income, it can mean losing an employer’s health insurance, retirement benefits, and paid time off, as well at the potential of not advancing in their career.

“Women with children under age 6, who made up 10% of the pre-pandemic workforce, account for almost a quarter of the unanticipated employment loss related to COVID-19,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Policy Hub reported in September. “This research, along with supporting evidence, suggests that day care limitations, rather than school closings, appear to be a constraining factor on the availability of workers to fill open positions in the current economy.”

Marin County, where Parker lives, has some of the highest costs of day care in the Bay Area, according to Aideen Gaidmore, executive director of Marin Child Care Council based in San Rafael. The average price for full-time infant care in the county is $2,000 a month, with $3,600 the highest. It costs about $2,600 for preschoolers, and $700 a month for after school care.

Pre-pandemic the organization had 5,588 child care slots. In March this year that number was 3,327.

Parents may pay a hefty price for child care, but statistics show the workers, mostly women, don’t make much money.

“Our community really needs more (child care) teachers. Unfortunately, more people are leaving the field than coming in. A lot of it is wages. They don’t make enough money for a community where it’s expensive to live like Napa,” said Erika Lubensky, executive director of Community Resources for Children in Napa.

The most recent data the organization has reveals that as of January this year 11 small child care sites in Napa County which cared for 120 children had permanently closed since the government mandated shutdowns started in March 2020.

“As of January 2021, while the state of California was experiencing a closure rate of 30% for child care centers, Napa County’s closure rate was closer to 25%, thanks to government support and private philanthropy,” Lubensky said.


Melanie Dodson, executive director of Community Child Care Council, said Sonoma County lost 62% of its child care slots since the pandemic started. She knows some will come back, but no one knows if they all will.

“With child care we’ve seen increases in costs because of cleaning and staffing is hard to find. Even the providers who are open have not been able to go back up to their full capacity so they are having to charge parents more because of the few spots they have,” Dodson said.

While child care in the United States has been a fractured system for decades, the pandemic exposed the cracks in the foundation.

The Council for a Strong America released a report in January 2019 — so pre-pandemic — titled “Want to Grow the Economy? Fix the Child Care Crisis.”

That study states, “Examining the economic impacts of the nation’s child care crisis on working parents, employers, and taxpayers describe the consequences. The verdict: an annual economic cost of $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue.”

With care for youngsters being such a huge problem, the Biden administration is considering human infrastructure such as child care in its overall infrastructure bill. In this last legislative session California lawmakers earmarked more money for early childhood schooling—classes before traditional kindergarten.

According to the U.S. Treasury, “The United States invests fewer public dollars in early childhood education and care relative to gross domestic product than almost all developed countries; ranking 35th out of 37 countries tracked by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.”

Lubensky with the Napa County child care nonprofit likes the prospect of additional pre-kindergarten programs. But when they are only for a few hours a day, that doesn’t solve the child care needs of workers. Most can’t leave work to take their child somewhere else.

“What our families need is full-day care and appropriate care for the age,” Lubensky said. “(Child care) was a system that was broken before the pandemic.”

Higher wages, mental health counseling, and flexibility for parents are all things that Professor Sarah Lee believes needs to be incorporated into the workplace.

“In some ways the pandemic has really disrupted the status quo, which is a great opportunity to look at what we define as the standards for work and reset some of our norms,” said Lee, of the Barowsky School of Business at Dominican University of California in San Rafael. “I think there are a host of different policies and programs that could be put in place to help employees. These issues are not new, it’s just that the pandemic is amplifying some of these issues that have been underlying for a very long time.”

People are using the upheaval of the pandemic to hit the “re-do” button on their work lives. Some are leaving their jobs permanently, many are changing careers, while some are furthering their education.

This time period is being called “the great resignation” because of the number of people quitting their jobs. In early October, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said 4.3 million people, or 2.9% of the workforce, quit their jobs in August. This was a record.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported 309,000 women age 20 or older voluntarily left the workplace in September. This means they quit their job or are no longer looking for one.

Hello Alice, a firm that helps entrepreneurs launch a company or build on what they have, has experienced a substantial uptick in business since the pandemic started.

“We are seeing the dynamics of the women joining the platform change. What we have seen this year is they haven’t started a business yet, but have a really good idea or are in the launch stage. That dynamic is more present with females than males,” Megan MacDonald, vice president of marketing, said

“As it relates to industry level data, we see more women in beauty and self-care on a percentage basis in the launch phase than last year, and similar with arts-entertainment-recreation,” MacDonald said. “Our owner growth from 2019 to 2020 was up 1,100%.”

As of the second quarter this year, more than half of the women using Hello Alice were at least 40 years old, with three-quarters of the women with a small business being mothers.

“We heard loud and clear early on that people used the destruction of COVID to do lot of self-reflection to decide if what they were doing for work was what they wanted to do for work in the future,” MacDonald said.

Women more than men have a history of having jobs that don’t pay well. Brookings Institution found that in 2018 46% of all working women and 37% of men work in low-wage professions, with the median hourly wage being $10.93.

Employment recruitment platform ZipRecruiter reports people want out of retail and hospitality and into work that can be remote.

Housekeeping at lodging properties are jobs often filled by women. While travel came to a screeching halt for much of the world and hotels laid off staff, the return of tourists and business travelers doesn’t mean the jobs have returned as well. Chains like Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt are offering daily room cleaning for additional fee. Guests are saying no, and that means fewer housekeepers are needed.

Then there are those with the means to retire sooner than expected.

Goldman Sachs estimates nearly1.5 million people retired since the pandemic hit. In large part they were able to because of the skyrocketing stock market. In August, the S&P 500 doubled in value from its pandemic low of 2,237 in March 2020.

A version of this story first appeared in the North Bay Business Journal.

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