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Pandemic Recession Becomes ‘Shecession’ as More Working Moms are Forced to Quit Jobs

November 4, 2020by Katie Surma, Chicago Tribune
Colleen Zavodny tries to work from home while her daughter Sylvia, 5, takes an exercise break with her online kindergarten class on Oct. 29, 2020 at their Woodridge, Illinois home. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

As a social service provider, Colleen Zavodny knows how important it is to take care of her mental health, but the coronavirus pandemic has tested her like nothing else.

“I’ve had a couple nasty, ugly cries where I wonder how am I going to keep managing this,” said Zavodny, of Woodridge, Ill., who runs the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s rape crisis center.

Zavodny supervises e-learning for her 5-year-old daughter Silvia while working full time for the YWCA from home. She also had been working as a server at a restaurant every other weekend when her ex has custody of their daughter.

When COVID-19 restrictions banned indoor dining in March and again Oct. 23, she lost her second income, which the 38-year-old she had used to pay for day care a few days a week, something she can no longer afford.

“At the beginning of COVID, I was like, OK, go week by week. And then once e-learning started, I was like, OK, let’s just go day by day,” she said. “And there are some days where I’m like, I just have to go forward one hour at a time or one minute at a time.”

Zavodny is like millions of other working mothers whose financial security and career prospects have been upended by the virus, and experts say it could take years for women to recover. In September alone, 865,000 women left the workforce or were laid off nationwide, compared with 216,000 men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Called the “shecession” by some economists, the coronavirus pandemic is unlike other modern recessions in that job losses are greatest among women, who dominate jobs that cannot be done remotely, like food service, retail and hospitality.

At the same time, they’re being required to do more at home. As schools and day care centers close, parents — mostly mothers — are forced to take on more responsibility, an escalation in child care needs that hasn’t happened in past recessions.

Some women in two-parent households are being forced to drop out of the workforce altogether, at least temporarily.

“The pandemic has forced millions of families to decide who scales down or drops out of the workforce for the next few months, and it’s going to be mostly women,” said Titan Alon, an economics professor at the University of California at San Diego who has researched the impact of the coronavirus on gender equality.

Early in the pandemic, moms of school-age children from early closure states were about 68% more likely to voluntarily leave their jobs than moms in states that had not yet closed, according to a study by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. Compared with dads, moms were about 50% more likely to take leave.

The situation hasn’t gotten much better.

A September survey of more than 40,000 North American workers by consulting firm McKinsey found 1 in 3 mothers has considered leaving the workforce or scaling back her career because of the pandemic. Among those considering a change, the majority cite child care as the primary reason.

“Everybody’s doing more right now. But when you already have a double shift, and then you compound that with another double shift, you really get this disparate difference for women,” said Alexis Krivkovich, managing partner at McKinsey and co-author of the report.

Women who reduce their hours or leave the workforce, whether temporarily or permanently, could lose skills, advancement opportunities, wages and benefits. Past recessions, which affected men’s employment more severely than women’s, have reduced the gender pay gap, but this recession could widen the gap again, according to Alon.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jacqueline Thomas, a mother of two who left her communications director role at PCMA, a global events company based in Chicago. “I spent a lifetime building a career, getting a master’s degree, working towards this directorship position. When that’s taken away, or you step away from it, you lose a sense of worth.”

Her decision to leave her job in September was based primarily on the well-being of her children, one of whom has special needs, she said. Both children are in a full-time e-learning program, which Thomas oversees out of their LaPorte, Indiana, home.

Thomas, who is in her mid-30s, and her husband never discussed him leaving his job because his career in the tech industry is more stable and less exposed to shocks from the pandemic. Once her children can transition into a stable schooling situation, Thomas wants to go back to work but said she’s worried about being penalized for stepping away temporarily.

“I have friends that have experienced it, I have family that has experienced it. When home pulls a woman away from the workforce and she comes back, it tends not to be very forgiving,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to explain that gap on the resume.”

If women continue to lose their jobs, scale back their hours or leave their careers, there will be consequences for the economy, businesses, and for women’s long-term financial security and well-being, experts say.

A gap in the unemployment rates between men and women in Illinois began to grow in April and continued to increase throughout the summer. In September, the unemployment rate for Illinois women was 8.6%, compared with 7.7% for men.

Between layoffs and women leaving work for caregiving, the effect on the economy is significant, said Misty Heggeness, the economist who wrote the Minneapolis Fed report.

“When we have a subset of the population that isn’t fully engaged at their maximum potential in the formal labor market, we’re basically giving up a proportion of our GDP and economic growth,” Heggeness said.

Erin Killingsworth-Walker, right, with husband Timothy Walker Jr. and their daughter Taylor, 5, at home in Olympia Fields on Oct. 5, 2020.

Employers stand to lose as well, particularly those companies seeking to diversify their management ranks and create advancement opportunities, said Maria Doughty, president and CEO of the Chicago Network, an organization of Chicago professional female leaders.

“We’re going see a huge shift in the number of women in the line of succession for C-suite roles step out because of the COVID,” said Doughty. “If women at the mid-management level step away, they won’t be considered for higher-level positions, and we already have a problem with a lack of women in C-suite positions in our country.”

The coronavirus’ child care crisis is hitting mothers at all income levels.

Alicia Atkinson, a mom of three who left her job as a 911 dispatch trainer in August after losing her child care, worries about the challenges she’ll face when she tries to get back into the workforce after the pandemic.

“There’s always the stigma of hiring people who have been out of the workforce,” said Atkinson, 39, of Hoffman Estates. “There are some times I feel really angry because this wasn’t the plan.”

Atkinson says she and her wife, Laurin Atkinson, made the decision for Alicia to step back based on the best interest of their kids. The couple was bothered by the inconsistency of preschool shutdowns and reopenings, which had a negative impact on their 4-year-old twin daughters and 3-year-old son, Alicia said.

When deciding which spouse’s career takes precedence, many parents perform a straightforward calculus: The person earning the most, or with the best career prospects, keeps working, Alon said. For most heterosexual couples, the husband outearns the wife.

The disparity is sometimes the result of gender inequities baked into the system, according to Pam Cohen, president of WerkLabs, the analytics division of the Chicago-based Mom Project, which connects women and employers through its digital marketplace.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Cohen said. “The one who has the more powerful role to begin with is likely going to get the default of, well, we need to bow to my job, rather than yours. And so it’s one of these self-fulfilling prophecies, and it’s a bad cycle.”

Experts are calling on businesses and policymakers to help women through the pandemic by implementing flexible schedules, providing paid leaves of absence and changing performance criteria to account for changes created by the pandemic, like adjusting delivery dates on projects.

Employers that are embracing flexible schedules for workers are one silver lining of the health crisis, according to Krivkovich, who says the practice will largely endure in some form after the pandemic.

Erin Killingsworth-Walker, mom of 5-year-old Taylor, said flexible scheduling and being able to work from her Olympia Fields home, along with help from her mother, has been key in allowing her to keep her human resources job at Relativity, a Chicago-based software company.

“Everyone is playing a role to make this possible right now. If we lose any of those pieces — the company support, the family support, then it will all go by the wayside,” she said.

Researchers see another bright spot emerging. In about 10% of American families, men are becoming the main child care provider because of the pandemic, according to Alon, who says these families, though a small contingent, could accelerate a shift in traditional gender roles.

When Tiffany and Troy Castleberry sat down to decide who would step back to care for their 5-year-old when schools closed in the spring, the couple decided it would be Troy, 46, who gave up his nursing job while Tiffany continued working as a nursing director at the University of Illinois Hospital and pursuing her doctoral degree in nurse practice.

While it didn’t come to that — Tiffany’s sister was able to help during the day — the couple decided Troy will become the primary child care provider in the home should anything change.

“I’m a very involved person, whether in our community, on professional boards, and other things I serve on. To come out of the workforce and be home would cost me a great deal emotionally,” Tiffany Castleberry said. “I’m not a stay-at-home mom. I wouldn’t like that.”

___

(c)2020 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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