Jenai A. Rossow was working full time at a county clinic near Ithaca, N.Y., when shelter-in-place orders forced the first overhaul of her work life. The mother of two and social worker was able to use paid emergency leave as schools and day cares shut down.
Her workplace was great about it, she said. Her husband is an essential worker who never stopped going into the residential treatment facility where he works to teach independent living skills to children in the foster care system. The family gets health insurance through her husband’s job, but Rossow said she made “light-years” more money.
Throughout the summer, she waited to see what would happen with schools. In the meantime, she continued her leave of absence to care for her children, ages 3 and 7. Then the paid leave dried up and the family got word that come September, public schools would return with a hybrid learning model. That sealed the deal.
“We just couldn’t afford to put the 7-year-old in part-time care,” Rossow said.
She left her job completely.
And she’s not alone.
In September, as the school year started, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force — or four times the number of men who dropped out — according to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday. By comparison, the number of working men in the United States fell by 216,000.
“Women are being disproportionately hit by this economic downturn related to the pandemic. But specific groups of women are having the most challenging time — women in service sector jobs which are disproportionately are women of color, and mothers, in particular mothers of young children,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist and author of “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times.”
“Way more women and way more mothers appear to be dropping out of the workforce mostly because they’re driven out,” she said. “For people who have some other income source, whether it’s their partner or they have some savings, they may just make the personal decision that they have to stop working for some period of time to get their kids through this.”
Rossow has a degree in elementary education, which she said makes her more suited to supervise her daughter’s education on the days she is remote learning from home.
While she is grappling with this big change, she said, life for her husband hasn’t changed much.
“He still does exactly what he has always done. Which I guess I didn’t really think about, until right now,” she said.
Rossow knows that she has it easier than many people. But still, the pandemic has altered her work and home life to a previously unrecognizable degree.
Like most women, child care and domestic duties have fallen on Rossow. This is the crux of an economic downturn that is disproportionately affecting women.
“At first, when it all started, I had tried to work part time at the clinic. I was like, okay, the first three hours of the day before he goes to work, I’m going to do virtual sessions with my client, and I literally was three weeks in and [realized] I cannot maintain working and doing all this and literally being with these kids 24 hours a day. That was impossible and was definitely me at possibly my worst,” Rossow said.
Despite her husband’s anxiety about going into work for fear of catching the coronavirus, she said she still feels a twinge of envy at the idea of him getting to leave the house every day.
This internal tug of war — wanting to do it all, feeling trapped and being overwhelmed — is the 2020 cocktail many working women in the United States are continuously served.
Marianna Whitehurst, 46, is a single mother in Atlanta who is furloughed, and she said she would not be able to make it work if she did not have the help of her parents.
Whitehurst’s daughter is 18 and on the spectrum. She attends a private school for children with special needs and is co-enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
Whitehurst is a paralegal and office manager of a small law firm whose hours and salary have been reduced by 50 percent throughout the pandemic. She does not know if she will get the usual credit from the state for her daughter’s education with cuts in the Georgia’s education budget.
Now that her daughter’s a teenager, she’s able to cope, but if she was still a young child, “I probably could not have worked,” Whitehurst said.
Having young children in particular is putting the workforce participation of many mothers at risk right now, Cooper said.
Six months into the pandemic, parents are at a point where something has to give, she said, with mothers most likely to take the brunt of it.
“You hit a point where you’re faced with a whole set of impossible choices.”