Costs of Motherhood in the Pandemic

In so many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a deep disregard for working mothers. In a previous article I wrote about the unequal distribution of labor in heterosexual couples as women and men try to work full time from home while dealing with homeschooling, housework, and childcare. In another recent article, I wrote about the disproportionate damage to women’s careers during the pandemic. A new article by Joan C. Williams, published in the New York Times, reveals new horror stories about the impact of pandemic-caused public policies that hurt rather help working mothers. In fact, Williams suggests that many “employers are using the pandemic to get rid of mothers.”

Williams is the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. This center has existed for some years to provide legal resources to help workers access workplace accommodations and family leave. She reports that between April and June 2020, caregiver-related calls to the hotline, mostly from mothers, increased 250 percent compared to the same time last year. She notes that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), passed this spring to provide family and sick leave for reasons related to Covid-19, is not working. The act is so complicated and excludes so many workers—such as healthcare workers, emergency responders, and employees of large companies—that it has failed to protect the people who need it the most. Here are some of the stories of people her center has tried unsuccessfully to help:

  • A single mother who is a healthcare worker and, therefore, not covered by the FFCRA was given the option to resign or get fired when she ran out of childcare options for her six-year-old and eight-month-old children.
  • A single mother who was supposed to be covered by the FFCRA requested a part-time schedule to help her deal with homeschooling and other childcare demands. She was covered by the FFCRA only if her employer agreed to accommodate her, which he did not. She was fired.
  • A grocery worker was able to return to work only if she could get the same part-time schedule she had always worked. Her employer reduced her hours to zero, refusing to answer her questions, and she was unable to collect unemployment because she had not officially been laid off.
  • Another single mother with a disabled child was fired when her employer insisted that she no longer work from home and return to the office. Because she could not take the risk of exposing her disabled child to Covid-19 by returning to the office, she was fired when she requested to be able to continue working from home. She was not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act because it is her daughter, not herself, who is disabled.
  • Worst of all are the stories of low-income women who have to return to work but can only do so by leaving small children at home alone.

Williams explains that not even the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program helps many mothers like those described above who are pushed out by employers. Employers deny these women’s unemployment claims “on the grounds that they left their jobs for personal reasons.” Williams notes that the lack of legal protections for working mothers is just one part of a larger problem. She suggests that we need nationwide paid family leave in this country and “neighborhood-based, nationally financed child care to replace the patched-together Rube Goldberg machine that just broke.”

We have the opportunity to fix these broken systems and give help to those who need it. Let’s not lose this momentum.


Photo courtesy of Krypto (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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