A global health crisis that upends nearly every facet of life will have both short and long-term effects. While certain things like personal hygiene habits, online shopping and connecting with family and friends through technology have been transformed, one of the most critical issues now coming to light is the effect this pandemic is having on the labor force, specifically regarding women and working mothers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 61% of American’s working age residents are employed or looking for work, and nearly two-thirds (approximately 3.2 million) of these people are women. While the unemployment rate between men (13%) and women (16%) from back in April is narrowing, an Oct. 20 The Hill article pointed out that the higher rate for women suggests that schools reopening this fall forced families to make difficult decisions, with women likely assuming responsibilities when it came to making themselves available to help with education and child care.

Both of those sobering statistics mean that nearly 900,000 fewer mothers and 300,000 fewer fathers (if those leaving the workforce are indeed parents) are in the workforce since before the pandemic started, and this global health crisis shows no signs of abating soon.

“Moms are not dropping out of the workforce; they are being forced out,” journalist, creator of “The Double Shift” podcast and working mom advocate Katherine Goldstein said during a Caregiving and Work Summit in September. “Years of failed policies have led to this … mothers are now working a triple shift of working, mothering and homeschooling.”

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In North Dakota, more than 66% of women in North Dakota aged 16 and older are in the workforce, compared to more than 75% of men, according to 2018 statistics from statusofwomendata.org (the most recent data available); it’s also important to note that more than 33% of employed women worked in low-wage jobs.

With schools reopening in a variety of settings throughout each state, how much working mothers have been affected professionally by the pandemic varies as well. An Oct. 29 New York Times article noted that from May to September, North Dakota and South Dakota saw the widest change in percent of parents of children enrolled in public or private K-12 school with canceled or distance learning classes.

But what can be done? Even when the pandemic finally ends and some sense of normalcy returns, what can be learned from this professionally crippling situation for working mothers? Here are three suggestions, as offered by leaders during the Caregiving and Work Summit.

Advocate for child care becoming a public policy issue

The last time a national child care system was seriously possible was in 1971, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act on a bipartisan vote. It was co-sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale and Indiana Rep. John Brademas. The legislation created a network of federally funded, locally run child care centers to provide education, food and medical services. Yet President Richard Nixon vetoed it, criticizing the act for placing a community-based approach against one centered on the family.

That was 50 years ago.

That means it’s probably time to revisit the notion that affordable, national child care is vitally important for a vibrant, healthy workforce, considering that the majority of children in the United States today grow up in a home with a single working parent or two married parents who are both employed; yet despite this fact about the reality of the labor force today, assumptions about affordable, full-time care being readily available have stymied federal and state policy discussions about how to support working families. That doesn’t mean change is impossible.

“Large-scale social change is not easy,” Goldstein noted.

With many schools opening in the fall with plans that include some distance learning time for students, mothers often assume the responsibilities of working from home while overseeing education. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms
With many schools opening in the fall with plans that include some distance learning time for students, mothers often assume the responsibilities of working from home while overseeing education. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms

Start working with your employer on possible solutions

Companies can alleviate many of the issues associated with a shrinking labor market for working mothers by offering solid policies or programs that provide assistance and paid leave for all employees, not just mothers.

Though no one policy will make things easier for every working parent, companies can begin taking steps to offer some help and hope that parents won’t be forced to leave the workforce.

That’s why it’s imperative that businesses understand all the groups experiencing professional setbacks due to the pandemic and the lack of comprehensive support for working parents, and not just focus on working mothers.

One of the most effective solutions would be providing a child care subsidy to help reduce the financial burden for families with working parents.

“The future of our economy depends on women increasing their labor force participation,” said gender economist and CEO of Pipeline Equity Katica Roy. “Women’s income is not secondary; it pays for food, mortgages and opportunities for kids.”

Additionally, companies need to start considering human-related data as a business decision, much like they would a product or service line offering, Roy said. That type of data reflects the employees and the values they hold, which companies should be interested in supporting. Human resource departments are no longer able to focus only on recruiting new employees, but also about retaining employees and providing them with tools necessary to survive this pandemic and thrive in their careers once it is over.

Be honest about your own situation

Communication is crucial during this time of juggling work, caregiving and distance learning. All working parents should hyper-communicate about what’s happening in their lives that could potentially affect their ability to meet work expectations or deadlines.

“We need to normalize parenting and caregiving by talking about the realities of it at work,” said Katie Bethel, founder of Paid Leave for the United States, a national campaign to win paid family and medical leave by 2022.

Parents should consider doing nightly check-ins to discuss what types of caregiving responsibilities are coming up and discuss dividing up the work as much as possible.

“If you can reduce or distribute the amount of caregiving on one person, you change the dynamic of what caregiving is,” Bethel said.

Being honest about emotions helps ensure the energy at home isn’t in discord, and it also enables children to talk about their own emotions. And, at the end of the day, if the stress of taking on additional child care responsibilities while still working is just too much, ask for help; there is no shame in that, only strength.

This pandemic is irrevocably changing many aspects of daily life, and those changes are being felt acutely by many people, especially working mothers. This global health crisis will eventually end, and the spotlight it is training on crucial issues can become a beacon of change that will improve the lives of working parents in the future.

Find out more

To learn more about how to make changes regarding affordable child care, check out this resources: