Sarah Mordecai just got the phone call that no parent wants: Her son was exposed to the coronavirus at day care. She had to pick up her two children immediately and prepare to quarantine.
“We were starting to breathe a sigh of relief. Now we’re back to panicking,” said Mordecai, who works for a health insurer in Little Rock. “Given the low vaccination rate in our area, I can’t see how it doesn’t happen again.”
Panic is setting in among America’s 46 million parents of children under 12 as plans for in-person day care and schooling are getting disrupted yet again from the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus. While children do not tend to face the worst complications from the virus, they do get sick and spread the virus, which can close down camps, school and day care for weeks. All of this is happening just as many employers are demanding workers return to the office.
When children have to stay home, the burden typically falls on moms. Some economists are warning the United States may be on the verge of a massive second wave of women dropping out of the labor force if the delta variant of the coronavirus is not stopped.
“I really do worry this will lead to a second wave of women leaving the labor force,” said economist Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor at Northeastern University. “For the economy, overall, is this a big deal? Probably not. But is this a big deal for women? Yes it is. We risk more women being casualties of the great resignation.”
At the start of the pandemic, women suffered large job losses or had to quit work to care for kids, leading some to coin the term “SHE-session.” More than 13 million women stopped working, leading to the lowest levels of women in the labor force since the 1980s.
The situation improved somewhat last summer as the economy reopened, but then a lot of moms suddenly dropped out of work last September as the school year began and their children were still at home. Many moms did manage to go back to work later in the school year. Currently, moms are working at about the same rate as women without kids, Labor Department data shows, largely due to flexible bosses and work-from-home arrangements.
Now, the “mom recovery” could be imperiled yet again.
“Everyone is anxious about what is going to happen in the fall," said Misty Heggeness, principal economist and senior adviser at the U.S. Census Bureau, whose research shows that even after the rebound, there are still about 1.5 million fewer working moms than pre-pandemic.
Over and over again, mothers described to The Washington Post how hard the uncertainty is because of the delta variant of the coronavirus. They thought they had survived the worst of the coronavirus and were hopeful for a true return to normal this fall. Now they’re plunged into a world where a notice could go out at noon to pick up the kids in 15 minutes at school or day care because of an exposure. All of this is happening at a time when parents have fewer options to work from home and fewer financial resources, as states scale back unemployment benefits and companies are less understanding.
Simone Berkowitz is a mom of two in San Francisco who thought she had finally figured out how to make everything work. She and her husband hired an au pair to care for the children so they could still do their jobs, but their au pair is stuck in Argentina. She was supposed to arrive by June but her visa appointment keeps getting postponed. Now they will be lucky if she gets here by September.
For lower-income moms and single parents, the struggle is more difficult. They lack the money to hire sitters or nannies or assemble small group “learning pods.” And they often have jobs that never allowed them to work from home.
Tracy Jackson, a phlebotomist technician in Florida, noticed fewer patients were coming in for bloodwork in recent weeks as coronavirus cases picked up in her state. By the end of July, her company sent out a memo warning she might be furloughed or forced to quarantine — again.
Jackson, a mom of three, has already had to quarantine four times this year, because either she or one of her children were exposed to the coronavirus. She does not get paid when she is not working. She lost so much income quarantining that she fell behind on her bills and her car was repossessed. She is only getting by now because her mother gives her a ride to work every day and an aunt has stepped in to help with child care.
“If I go home, I’m out of work. We don’t get paid for it,” said Jackson, who lives in Fort Myers. “We’re health care workers, but when we get sick, no one takes care of us.”
Her 8-year-old has asthma. She worries especially about exposing him to the coronavirus, but as a single mom, she cannot afford to keep him home this fall. When the school district sent out a note asking if she wanted to opt out of in-person learning, she reluctantly checked the box that her son would return to the classroom.
“I can’t afford to opt out and stay home right now. I’ve never been behind on bills. Everything just fell apart because of all of this going on,” Jackson said. “But you can’t give up because you got three little children depending on their mom.”
Top economists and Wall Street investors are not predicting a severe drag on the economy from the delta variant, but parents are a lot more alarmed. The latest surge in daily cases is worse than last summer and another setback in parents’ ability to juggle work and child care, while more companies are requiring workers to return to the office.
The main factors determining whether women keep their jobs or stop working is the ability to work from home or having family nearby — a grandparent or relative — to watch the kids, according to research and focus groups by Modestino at Northeastern and economist Laura Sherbin at consulting firm Seramount.
“We’re taking away that one last crutch of working from home,” said Modestino, whose own daughter was recently sent home from a coding camp due to coronavirus exposure. “Women are just at the end of our ropes.”
In parts of the country where vaccination rates remain low and the virus is surging back especially strong, parents worry that this school year, children may ping pong each week between in person and virtual school at home.
Shannon Servoss is uneasy about the school year starting in mid-August, especially since her family lives in Fayetteville. Her state passed a law saying schools cannot require kids to wear masks. Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he regretted signing the school mask ban into law.
“I’m so overwhelmed with trying to make decisions with covid safety — for me, for my kids, for my students,” said Servoss, who is vaccinated but remains high-risk because of lung damage from before the pandemic. “I am definitely a lot less productive."
It has already been a hard summer for the Servoss family. Their 11-year-old daughter was exposed to the coronavirus during her first week of summer camp. Servoss, a chemical engineering professor, and her husband, a business owner, have been taking turns caring for their three kids. They decided to pull their children out of all summer camps, because they felt it was better to have a consistent plan instead of pivoting last minute.
School years are just beginning in some parts of the county, but already some students and classes have been sent home to quarantine temporarily for covid outbreaks.
Another huge help for mothers who have managed to keep their jobs while balancing child-care needs over the past year and half has been due to understanding bosses, says Sherbin, the consultant at Seramount who works on diversity and inclusion issues with many companies.
“What parents struggle with the most, time and again, is unpredictability. That is what makes it so hard," said Sherbin, a mom of four who had to deal with her kids’ summer camps being cut short. “Overwhelmingly parents who were staying in their careers and staying engaged at work were ones who had active managers.”
Several middle-class and upper-income women described how they were unable to manage work and child-care demands now that their companies were requiring them to return to the office. It was no longer possible to even try to do the getting-by tactic of putting kids in front of the TV while the parents worked in another room.
One mom of three who works at a technology company in Arlington’s Crystal City said that after she told her boss she did not want to come back to the office because she has three unvaccinated children at home, her boss warned her that her job could be in jeopardy. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job.
She recalls her boss saying: “I don’t want you to be on the list that you’re not coming in two to three days a week."
Many middle-class families today need two incomes to survive, says Heggeness of the U.S. Census Bureau. It is harder for both parents to work when there is no child care, and there are already warning signs of day care closures around the country.
Grace Phillips, 19, works at a day care in the Cleveland suburbs that serves about 100 kids who are mainly the children of nursing home and food service workers. It just closed for a week after a teacher tested positive.
"The company incentivized employees to get the vaccine with a $50 gift card. The employee who tested positive was not vaccinated though,” said Phillips. “I foresee more things like this will start popping up again. I think we just got a little too comfortable feeling like the pandemic was over and taking masks off.”
Moms who are vaccinated expressed frustration with families and co-workers who refuse to do the same since it is exacerbating the stress and uncertainty of the virus.
Lesley Cain understands that anger all too well. She used to be on the fence about getting the vaccine. She did not think she needed it while she worked from home and kept her son at home, but Cain returned to work in early July and her doctor urged her to get vaccinated. She received her first Moderna vaccine dose on July 17. Unfortunately, she still caught covid at the end of July. She is not sure where.
Cain was relieved that her 7-year-old son tested negative for the virus. He was able to go on a vacation with the rest of the extended family while Cain quarantines at home using up her vacation days. Multiple people in her office are now quarantining as well.
“It affects so many more people than you. It sucks, and I wish I had been fully vaccinated,” said Cain. “All I do is cry the last several days, and I’m not even that sick. I’m home alone. I can’t leave. I can’t hug my son. My whole family is on a trip without me.”
Andrew Van Dam contributed to this story.