There’s no denying it – working parents still face serious hardships and disruption in their daily lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Black women and communities of color have disproportionately felt it most, due to systemic inequities in health, education, and employment opportunities. Many people of color are still navigating high unemployment rates, job insecurity, and uncertainties in child care.
Women of color are feeling the full economic impact of the pandemic. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, nearly three million American women exited the workforce and accounted for 55 percent of overall job loss due to child care and caregiving responsibilities and layoffs in women-dominated sectors like hospitality and education. Although women continue to make gains in employment (314,000 in May 2021 with a 5.6 percent unemployment rate), the rate of unemployment continues to be higher for Black women at 8.2 percent and Latinx women at 7.5 percent compared to white women at 4.8 percent. Black and Latinx women are also more likely to be hired for part-time positions despite wanting to work full time, causing them to miss out on company benefits such as paid family leave and medical leave.
In North Carolina, Black and Latinx workers are overrepresented in low-wage service jobs that often do not provide paid sick leave forcing employees to choose between coming to work sick or going without pay – many of which have been considered “essential” during the pandemic. Around 70 percent of low-wage workers do not have access to a single paid sick day. Two thirds of Black mothers serve as the primary breadwinner for their families. Black mothers are also the least likely to have the flexibility to work from home/telecommute and face barriers to accessing child care such as cost and living in areas listed as child care deserts.
Dr. Phuong-Mai Jennifer Vu, a board-certified internist and pediatrician, says “it is concerning to see the difficulties women in particular are facing with trying to balance childcare, working, and household responsibilities. Due to the lack of flexibility in the workplace and not being offered paid sick leave, even finding time to simply get to the doctor for sick visits has become a challenge.”
“It is concerning to see the difficulties women in particular are facing with trying to balance child care, working, and household responsibilities. Due to the lack of flexibility in the workplace and not being offered paid sick leave, even finding time to simply get to the doctor for sick visits has become a challenge.”Dr. Phuong-Mai Jennifer Vu
A recent survey by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation of working parents with young children in NC found that only half of all working parents receive any supports from their employer (e.g. paid sick leave, flexible working hours, paid family leave, child care subsidies). Households of color are two-to-four percentage points less likely to receive these benefits compared to the statewide average. Households of color are also more likely to report that their child care provider is no longer open, they cannot ﬁnd an alternative, and they cannot afford child care because of reduced income. This creates a domino effect of taking unpaid time off, quitting their job or putting their education on hold to take care of their young children.
“I have seen families struggle to afford daycare and request telework or work from home options, which are not available in all sectors of the workplace,” said Dr. Vu. “This in turn has been impacting the mental health and stress on parents as they attempt to juggle both their childcare needs and work requirements.”
Opportunities for Employers to Address Disparities in the Workplace
Employers have an opportunity to incorporate family friendly benefits into their workplace that can have significant impacts on their employees and assist with long-term retention.
Examples of family-friendly benefits that have a positive impact on workers include:
- Paying a “living wage” helps employees properly plan and budget for their expenses. By offering a living wage to employees, it would ensure much-needed income to Black women whose wages sustain their households.
- Providing predictive scheduling enables employees to better plan for child care, coordinate family matters, and potentially work another job (women are more likely than men to hold a second job).
- Offering paid sick leave provides an employee the comfort of knowing they can stay home when they are sick instead of having to come to work to pay their bills. Workers who were exposed to COVID-19 but were forced to go to work due to lack of paid sick leave contributed to greater spread of the virus at in-person workplaces.
- Providing or paying for quality child care for parents with young children so that working families can fully participate in the workforce. This helps lower unemployment rates and absenteeism by removing uncertainties and worries about finding child care.
- Paid leave allows an employee to take needed time away from work and feel confident that they can return to their same position without having to decide between taking time off or losing their job. Paid leave programs improve the physical and mental health of new parents, with the strongest effects for single mothers and mothers with lower incomes, who are disproportionately women of color. Babies born to mothers with parental leave are less likely to be born prematurely and more likely to be born at a healthy birth weight – the percent of Black babies born with low birthweight, is nearly twice as high as the percent of white babies born with low birthweight in North Carolina.
For an additional resource to support employers in the hospitality and manufacturing industries to reopen in a strategic and safe way, Family Forward NC developed a COVID-19 Return to Work toolkit to help create family friendly businesses. The toolkit helps employers emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a strategic advantage: bring employees back to work more quickly and more fully; establish a culture of resilience and security to attract and retain talent; and support the health and well-being of children and their families.
Offering family-friendly policies to employees is an opportunity for employers to retain women in the workplace that were forced out because of their responsibilities towards childcare, virtual learning, and caregiving.