Seattle resident Reshonna Reynolds had been a preschool teacher for 15 years when her first child was born. She was able to access a few months of paid maternity leave, but when her leave ran out, the lack of viable child care options was stark. Three months off was hardly enough time—especially after a pregnancy she says was especially stressful due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings against racist police violence in 2020. At the end of maternity leave, she was still reeling from postpartum depression, and her son was soon diagnosed with epilepsy. And even if she hadn’t felt her son was too young to go to day care at just 12 weeks old, the cost was out of reach at $1,600 a month. The realities left her with few options.
“I had to quit my job,” Reynolds, 34, said. “Sending him to child care would be, like, my whole check.”
But her “quit” story isn’t one that was part of the so-called “Great Resignation”—a phenomenon where some workers have leveraged power over their employers for better working conditions elsewhere. Instead, Reynolds is one of the millions whose work-life has been thrown off course during the pandemic, sending them into financial precarity. For Reynolds, it means her family is living paycheck to paycheck, and she’s had to apply for rental and food assistance to get by on her husband’s middle school teaching salary alone.
Nearly 1.1 million fewer women were in the labor force in January 2022 compared to February 2020, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report released in February. Mothers across the country told Prism they’ve quit during the pandemic due to little to no paid maternity leave options, inadequate paid time off to balance working and raising kids, or unaffordable and inaccessible child care options. Women have also found themselves bouncing in and out of employment—stepping back into entry-level roles or freelance work, the latter which lacks proper benefits but extends some flexibility.
Women of color are disproportionately impacted by the cascading caretaking and work crises. Black and Latina women have higher unemployment rates of 5.8% and 4.9%, respectively, compared to women overall, at 3.6%, according to the law center analysis. When accounting for the 168,000 Black women and 61,000 Latinas who’ve left the labor force since February 2020, those rates rise to 7.3% and 5.4%, respectively.
Reynolds, who is Black, says for women of color, the “odds are stacked against us in this way where it’s like we literally have to go through tons of adversity to get to where we need to be.”
“It never stops,” says Reynolds, who recently took on a part-time role with the member-based advocacy group MomsRising. Amid what Reynolds called the “two pandemics” the Black community faced—both COVID-19 and police violence—she and her husband, Travis, found hope in their baby boy, named Malcolm-Xion in honor of Malcolm X, born Juneteenth in 2020, a symbolic birth date that wasn’t lost on the Reynolds.
“That was a special thing,” Reynolds said. “It was his cry to the world, ‘We need hope.’”
Full-time work is still elusive for Reynolds; her son sits on a two-year waitlist for affordable day care programs. She decided to go back to school in hopes a master’s degree will boost her teaching salary when she returns to work once her child is in grade school.
According to MomsRising, the pandemic has exacerbated the weak structural support for working parents—no mandatory paid family leave, inadequate flexibility for the “sandwich generation” of adults caring for kids and older family members, and unaffordable child care options. The chief workplace justice officer at the organization, Ruth Martin, said that women are relying on family members to fill in the gaps.
One of those women is Sharonna Simpkins-Callaway, a 39-year-old Black mother of six living in Burgaw, North Carolina.
She quit her job at a major U.S. retailer last fall when, she says, they failed to offer maternity leave after she gave birth five months ago because she hadn’t been at the company long enough. But in reality, she says she’d been working at the company for five years and only hadn’t made the work cut off when she switched retailer locations.
“I had so many bills that I had to pay,” said Simpkins-Callaway. “I just didn’t have the funds to do all of that. I ended up being homeless for a couple of months, and then I ended up moving in with my sister.”
She recently returned to a certified nursing assistant position after a few months without income from the retail position. She also works as a caretaker for her aunt, who, along with her 21-year-old daughter, assists with child care for her younger children.
Now, she’s working with the Service Employees International Union to organize her workplace for better benefits from her current employer, a rehabilitative retirement home in North Carolina.
“It’s about making the power moves to help benefit our situation instead of just letting them push us in the way they want us to go,” said Simpkins-Callaway.
Currently, no federal laws require paid family or sick leave—only unpaid leave for certain eligible employees, per a policy brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., mandate paid sick time for certain employers. Nine states plus D.C. have paid family and medical leave laws. These laws, however, may exempt part-time workers or small businesses.
Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said labor laws built to protect workers have historically excluded women, particularly Black women.
“The baseline labor law that was put in place in the ’30s—that gave us Social Security, the right to organize, minimum wage, over-time—all of those things were based on men,” Dixon said, referring to a string of major legislative changes during the Great Depression. “To be even more frank, they were based on white, able-bodied men.”
Some parents have relied on President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to make up for lost paychecks, which doled out monthly payments of $250-to-300 per child via the Advance Child Tax Credit program. The extra cash kept 3-3.5 million children out of poverty in the first three months of the program, which expired at the end of 2021. According to a Census Bureau report, one-in-four families with young children used the tax credit for child care costs.
Valerie Wilson, the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, said it is “strikingly clear” how effective these economic programs were in “limiting the rise in poverty.” Biden’s Build Back Better plan would have extended the child care tax credit and universal paid leave, but that appears unlikely with a shift to a smaller, piecemeal approach due to senators’ inability to pass the more ambitious legislation.
Daniella Knight, a Maryland-based Latina mother of three and another MomsRising member, used the credit to pay for pre-school tuition and summer camps for her children—a boon for her kids to socialize after months of virtual learning and lockdowns.
The extra cash was especially helpful for Knight’s family after she left a part-time job and her husband was laid off and unemployed for a few months in 2020. During the pandemic, she’d trek to her part-time property management job at night to handle monthly accounting duties to avoid exposure to others during the day to protect her family and after her kids had gone to sleep.
But in September 2020, she was pressured to return to the office more often. Due to her job’s inflexibility, a different schedule in her husband’s new job, and virtual school for her kids, she decided it was “completely unfeasible.”
“I just realized I wasn’t 22 anymore,” said Knight, who eventually transitioned entirely to sleep consulting as a freelancer.
COVID-19 has forced schools to operate less consistently than before the pandemic, with hybrid set-ups and ever-changing closures due to the virus spreading or changing health guidelines that make teachers and parents alike opt-out of a school setting. Martin said that’s “definitely causing more women to just either not go back to work or just throw their hands up and be like, ‘I can’t. In what world does this make sense for me to figure out how to make this work?’” True flexibility without micromanaging in the workplace, as well as paid leave for a variety of caregiving roles, are needed to make a steady job more accessible to parents, especially women, according to Martin.
Dixon, of NELP, added that it’s common for parents to dip in and out of employment more frequently than others. For single parents, it’s worse.
In New Jersey, 28-year-old Nora Wolf has quit two different jobs during the pandemic.
Once a sales account manager, she says resumé gaps forced her to take an entry-level administrative role when she decided to return to work. During the pandemic, she has had to move back in with her parents to make it work as the primary caretaker of her daughter as she navigates divorce proceedings.
She has sent her daughter back to day care—hoping other people receiving COVID-19 vaccinations will keep her daughter safer than when vaccines were not available. Wolf says her daughter will receive a vaccine when she becomes eligible.
“I’ve just sort of been ping-ponging around as far as employment goes, just trying to make ends meet,” she said. “We’re living a very different life from when the pandemic started.”
Another single mother, Naomi Peña, left her position as an executive assistant at Google last August when she knew her kids would be going through a major transition. One child was entering high school, another going into middle school, and a third would be commuting to another neighborhood for school in New York City.
“That was going to require a whole lot more attention, coupled with the fact that one of my kids was getting bused,” said Peña, 41, referencing the chaotic busing system in the five boroughs. “I just knew I couldn’t be present and do well at being a mom and handling my household and also be present in any workplace.”