Millions of women have quit their jobs during the pandemic, childcare partly to blame

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — As the pandemic enters its third year, women continue to be pushed out of the workforce.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than 4 million US jobs have been lost since February of 2020, and women make up more than half of those losses. Meanwhile, one in three women considered leaving or changing their jobs in the last year.

So why is this happening? A few reasons. COVID-19 has not only intensified work, but it has intensified child-care and house-work pressures too.

Amit Batabyal, Arthur J. Gosnell Professor of Economics at Rochester Institute of Technology, says “disproportionate homework” has fallen on the shoulders of women. 

“When I say disproportionate homework, I mean things like caring for the elderly, caring for children, and just general housework. Women tend to do more of these things than men, even in the absence of any kind of pandemic,” Batabyal said.

“But in the presence of a pandemic, particularly when you have some children at home because their schools are closed, or other people, say elderly parents or relatives can’t move about by themselves and need supervision, these activities are falling disproportionately on women,” Batabyal said. 

Maranne McDade Clay, the Executive Director of the Women’s Foundation of Genesee Valley, said a “major exodus” of women from the workforce happened in fall of 2021 when many students had to learn remotely.

“I’ve had so many anecdotal stories about women who’ve had kept their children home the first week after break, after school break, because they wanted to keep their family healthy. We need to have employers be understanding, we need to have employees be understanding,” McDade. 

But it’s not just children being out of school that’s the problem. Finding reliable and affordable child care is also to blame for the number of women leaving the workforce. 

“Full-time care for a child under a toddler, which is a higher rate of care and comes with a higher fee, it’s in the range of close to $15,000 as a full price fee annually,” McDade said. “If you think about a starting salary for somebody being $50,000 and taking $15,000 right off the top, the reality is that while we don’t support and subsidize quality childcare at a greater level, we lose people from the workforce who cannot afford to take that economic hit from the cost of childcare.”

Assemblywoman Sarah Clark is a mother of three and has seen first-hand the difficulties of finding affordable childcare. 

“I always say childcare is a math equation that doesn’t work, right? Families can’t afford to pay more, providers aren’t getting reimbursed at their true cost, and our workforce in the childcare sector isn’t paid enough to stay. You can make more money at a fast food restaurant right now than you can as a childcare worker,” Clark said. 

To help make access to childcare easier and more affordable for families, Clark has sponsored numerous pieces of legislation.

In December, Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law Clark’s Bill A.5480, which allows “social services districts to pay child care providers by direct deposit for any subsidized child care funds owed. Currently child care providers are paid by paper check through the mail, which can often delay payments four to six weeks.” Clark said this can be burdensome on providers operating on thin margins. 

Clark is also currently working on a bill with Senator Jessica Ramos that would make childcare more affordable. 

“The first thing we need to do is create a subsidy system that pays more like the true cost of care,” Clark said. “We base it on the market rate, which is an arbitrary sort of, you know, what childcare providers currently provide. And so it hasn’t really changed over the years because it’s just a rate that they charge and they everyone’s afraid to make, you know, charge more because families can afford it.”

She adds that along with increasing subsidies, paying childcare workers and providers more than a minimum wage has to be a priority. 

“Then we start to need to pump that money back into paying child care workforce more, getting them in line with teachers, these are people that care,” Clark said. “Childcare staff and workers are how my children learned how to take a nap on a schedule and eat. I’m so thankful for them, but we need to pay them more.”

McDade adds there also needs to be more done to help single-female households. The Women’s Foundation says 30% of all families in the Finger Lakes region are headed by single females, reflecting more than 40,000 households. Roughly 10,000 of those single female-headed families are living below the poverty level.

“The single female household is the nexus of poverty in our region and providing support and childcare support to enable women to get the job care training and the employment opportunities that they want and need, and the education and the workforce training that they desire, only benefits everybody,” she said. 

As more women leave the workforce, no matter the reason, experts say it will likely hurt the economy. 

“If quality, talented workers, irrespective of whether they’re female or male, are leaving the workforce because of reasons like unaffordable childcare or lack of ability in finding quality childcare, then the economy as a whole loses out from the talents of these individuals, who are disproportionately women right now, who could be doing a lot in their workforce environment,” Batabyal said. 

He adds that if more women are quitting their jobs, it could also have an impact on younger women looking to step into new positions or roles. 

“Younger women joining the labor force would like to see people who they can aspire to and who can serve as role models. And if senior women are leaving the workforce, then there’s that added negative aspect, which affects younger women as they work or join the labor force,” Batabyl said. 

Clark adds it’s important to have women in the workforce because they can bring unique perspectives and problem-solving skills to the table. 

“In business we’ve seen if you have women on boards, if you have diversity in your chamber, there are more successful businesses. I mean, we are the number one purchasers of things, having people who know how our mind works is helpful to make your business successful,” Clark said. 

According to a report by McKinsey and Company, 42% of women reported feeling burned out in their jobs in 2021, compared to 32% in 2020. The gap in burnout between men and women has nearly doubled during the pandemic. 

For women of color, the burnout may be even worse. According to a report by the Washington Post, 91,000 Black women left the labor force in November and Black and Hispanic women continue to see high rates of unemployment throughout the year.

Locally, there are a number of local non-profits throughout the area that support women in their career transitions and with re-entry into the workplace.

You can check out the Women’s Foundation by clicking here, or visit Rochester Women’s Network here.