Danielle Alexander remained hopeful when the coronavirus pandemic forced her to start working from home in March. She had struggled to return to her job as a communications professional 10 weeks after giving birth to her first son, Ori, and thought the new setup would actually be better for her family.
It proved to be much worse.
Alexander, 29, would retreat to the attic of her North Portland home each morning to hop on conference calls as her nine-month-old wailed for his mother from the floor below. In between calls, she would run downstairs to feed him, but he would inevitably become upset when she had to leave again. She tried holding him during her calls, but he grew restless and she struggled to get her work done.
“It just became so severe with the depression I was feeling and how difficult it was for me to work that I needed to quit my job,” said Alexander. She quit in June, though she recently began taking on part-time consulting work to help support her family.
Alexander is among thousands of women across the country who have made the difficult choice to leave their jobs during the pandemic as they’ve faced increased challenges balancing work while caring for children or family members. The start of the school year this fall put increased pressure on many of those women as the pandemic forced children to stay home and adapt to distance learning.
Approximately 865,000 women ages 20 and over, including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women, dropped out of the workforce in September, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by the National Women’s Law Center. Women accounted for about 80% of workers that left the workforce last month. Similar state-level data is not available, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
“What we’re seeing is a high degree of stress and challenge for caregivers and parents,” said Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward Oregon, which advocates for Oregon families and caregivers. “Often that labor of caregiving falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women. There were a lot of women who were in and out of the workforce before COVID because of their caregiving responsibilities. They just have even fewer resources to manage those responsibilities now.”
The federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March to aid caregivers amid the pandemic. The program requires certain employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for workers who need to quarantine or need to care for children whose schools have closed due to the pandemic.
But the program doesn’t apply to employers with over 500 employees and those with under 50 employees can request exemptions. That means that many workers, including a large percentage of those in essential industries, don’t qualify for the benefits.
A lack of available and affordable childcare has also put added strain on Oregon parents during the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, all 36 of the state’s counties were “childcare deserts” for infants and toddlers up to age 2, while 25 counties were deserts for preschoolers, according to a 2019 study prepared for the Oregon Early Learning Division by researchers at Oregon State University. The study defined a childcare desert as a community with more than three children for every regulated childcare slot. Childcare slots within the state have been cut in half since the start of the pandemic, according to an estimate by Miriam Calderon, the state’s Early Learning System director.
A lack of quality childcare put Tia Dunham in a difficult situation when her children returned to distance learning this fall.
Dunham, a single mother, works at a Portland funeral home and can’t stay home to help her kids with their schoolwork. When her 12-year-old son, Elijah, began to struggle with distance learning, she felt she had no choice but to pull him out of school and homeschool him herself.
Elijah now watches his four-year-old sister, Ani, in the mornings while Dunham brings her eldest daughter, Kacidy, 14, to work. There, Kacidy can attend her online classes with her mom nearby if she needs help. At lunchtime, Dunham drops Kacidy back off at the family’s Southeast Portland home to babysit Ani and brings Elijah to work for the rest of the day, giving him time to focus on the curriculum that she has put together for him.
The setup is far from ideal. Dunham, 33, has recently been thinking of leaving her job, hoping she might be able to qualify for unemployment insurance through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which supports those who are typically ineligible for unemployment benefits, including people who have to stay home to care for a child due to the pandemic.
But the unemployment benefits that Dunham would receive would be limited – enhanced unemployment benefits that were being offered by the federal government expired in July and haven’t been renewed – and the PUA program itself is set to expire at the end of the year if Congress doesn’t pass new relief legislation.
“I am really privileged that I have an income right now,” Dunham said. “I don’t want to lose that, but I also have an obligation to raise my kids and keep them healthy.”
Those same concerns have been on the mind of Vancouver resident Maria Silva.
Silva’s 10-year-old son, Mexi Miranda-Silva, is autistic and has to switch between regular classes and special education courses throughout the day. He can’t sign into those classes, or navigate his course load, without Silva’s help. Even before the pandemic, Silva had struggled to find an affordable daycare that could support Mexi’s needs and she hasn’t been able to find a program now that could give him the attention he requires to navigate distance learning.
Last month, Silva, who was working as a teacher’s assistant in the Vancouver school system, had to take several days of unpaid leave to help Mexi with his schoolwork. It was during that leave when she learned she was being laid off.
That has left her in a financially precarious situation. She filed for unemployment in Washington and applied for food stamps and other assistance from the state, but still had to sell her car to pay her bills. Her children’s father, who lives in Beaverton, is also unemployed due to the pandemic and she has been unable to rely on child support as he continues to wait for his benefits to come through.
Yet, Silva, 49, doesn’t see any way she can return to the workforce while her son’s school remains online. She knows of other mothers who have continued working through the pandemic out of necessity, even leaving young kids at home because they have no other choice. Women of color are disproportionately the ones facing these tough choices because they are more likely to work outside the home in essential, lower-wage jobs.
“Even though I am facing a very challenging moment, I know there are a lot of people that have it worse,” Silva said.
HELP ISN’T IMMINENT
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, and other members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, along with organizations throughout Oregon, have been pushing for a greater investment in childcare to help mothers like Silva, Dunham and Alexander.
The Oregon Child Care Project, a coalition of six nonprofit organizations, has been throwing its support behind statewide candidates who will back investing in affordable and quality childcare. Multnomah County voters will also vote next month on whether to tax high earners to fund free preschool.
At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills in July that would provide over $60 billion to support and stabilize the childcare industry, but the bills remain stalled in the Senate.
“I’ve heard from many women in Oregon that the lack of child care during COVID-19 is forcing them – and women they know – to leave the workforce,” said Bonamici in a statement. “That’s extremely troubling. Leaving the workforce to take care of kids is a life-changing decision and it could have ripple effects for years to come on their careers and the economic wellbeing of their families.”
But increased public spending on childcare or other financial support won’t come soon enough for the thousands of women who have already left the workforce. Without action, Paluso, the executive director of Family Forward Oregon, worries that more women will be forced to leave their jobs, which could set women back significantly and have lasting impacts on the makeup of the workforce.
“We need healthy thriving families to have a healthy thriving economy,” Paluso said. “We get healthy thriving families on the backs of a lot of women’s labor and we’ve yet to prioritize supporting that or recognizing it or valuing it in any real meaningful way. I think we’re seeing the consequences of that now.”