The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many moms left the workforce during the pandemic. For some, going back isn’t so simple.

Ana Diaz Guzman, 43, pushes her son Antoni, 7, on a swing in a park near their home in Silver Spring, Md. (Allison Shelley for The Washington Post)

Ana Diaz Guzman got a job interview. A moving van company in Washington was looking for a cleaner. The hiring manager had called a job counselor, who’d called Guzman, and now Guzman was making calls because somebody would have to watch Antoni.

Guzman, a 43-year-old single mom from Silver Spring, Md., desperately wanted reliable employment. But every effort she made to provide for her 7-year-old son financially was complicated by her need to care for him physically. It was March; he hadn’t been to school in person for over a year. Guzman hadn’t worked steadily for over a year. For a year, she’s overheard her little boy repeat an urgent prayer: “Please let my mom get a job.”

Guzman was one of the millions of women who left the workforce during the pandemic.She was past due on rent, in debt to friends who’d lent her money to stay afloat. The stress sometimes showed up in migraines that would immobilize her. Sometimes she just cried.

Now, she had a job interview — but she was running late. It had taken a while to find someone to watch Antoni. Luckily, the hiring manager was understanding. He was also impressed by Guzman’s résumé and her work ethic. He hired her on the spot.

Getting the job was a potential solution to a lot of problems in Guzman’s life, so long as she could solve the problems it created: Work started at 7 a.m. each day,and the commute from her apartment in Silver Spring would take up to two hours, so to make it all work, Guzman would have to find someone who could care for Antoni before dawn. Paying a babysitter wasn’t an option; Guzman was in debt with no savings. She would have to rely on the kindness of whatever friend or neighbor happened to be available — not just to watch Antoni but to oversee his virtual schooling.

On herfirst day, the friend she’d lined up to babysit canceled at the last second, and Guzman couldn’t find a replacement, so she had to call in sick. The manager was,again, understanding. But then it happened again, and after 2½ weeks on the job, she was fired, she says, fortoo many absences.

The migraines resumed. So did Antoni’s prayers.

As pandemic restrictions are lifted, business headlines have raised an alarm: Employers can't find enough employees. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the worker shortage an "urgent crisis" that threatens to hold back the nation's economic recovery. Executives in the retail, restaurant and child-care industries say that even signing bonuses and increased wages haven't been incentive enough to allow them to fill available shifts with qualified staffers.

Meanwhile, millions of American women are sitting on the sidelines.

The situation has been especially dire for Black and Latina women, who are more likely to work at low-wage and service industry jobs. The May unemployment rates for Black and Latina women were 8.2 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively, compared with 4.8 percent for White women. And it’s been devastating for many mothers. Workforce participation among prime-aged women — those most likely to be raising children — dropped slightly in May, according to an otherwise positive jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women’s workforce participation rates are at lows not seen since 1988, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.

That includes many women who, like Guzman, are trying to balance the need to work with the need to care for children, sometimes with scant support. It’s a balancing act that predates the pandemic, but which the pandemic made worse. Now, it may be affecting the recovery.

Working moms are not okay

“Mothers trying to find jobs have to go through so many hurdles in order to just have a stable home, to afford the essentials,” said Donna Gabriel, a job counselor at a Maryland nonprofit, Interfaith Works, that had been helping Guzman find work.

The pandemic’s economic downturn has inspired a cutesy nickname: “the she-session.” After cratering in spring 2020, the job market eventually rebounded — for men. A February report by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank found that by November of last year “nearly all fathers returned to the labor force,” while “mothers regained virtually none of their lost ground.”

“If we continue on with the rate of change that we saw in the April jobs report, it will take women 28 months to return to their pre-pandemic employment levels. That’s staggering,” said Cherita Ellens, chief executive of Women Employed, a nonprofit that champions fair workplace policies for women. “Women need to go to work, but they’re being forced to figure it out without the resources to do so.”

Even for women lucky enough to be able to work remotely, the stress of trying to balance the demands of the workday with the need to be both mom and teaching assistant to kids in Zoom school (and, in some cases, caregiver to elderly parents) prompted some to make the hard decision to drop out of the workforce.

But for women like Guzman, at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, there haven’t been hard decisions as much as near-impossible circumstances.

Guzman has worked since she was an 11-year-old back in her native El Salvador. As a young woman, she set up a small restaurant in her home, waking early to catch fresh fish she would cook and serve to her customers.

But in 2013, she says, gangs in the area became aware of her success and demanded a payoff, threatening to kill her and burn down her restaurant. Unable to come up with the money, Guzman fled, leaving another son, Kevin, with relatives and the promise that she’d send for him.

“It was to save my life, or I would die in that country,” she said one May morning from a couch in the dim but tidy two-bedroom apartment she shares with Antoni and a roommate. A coyote she’d paid to help her reach the United States abandoned her and two other women in the desert, she says, and after three days without food they were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents. It was a medic at the border who informed her that she was pregnant with Antoni.

She was granted asylum and found work, mostly in construction — laying bricks, knocking down walls with a sledgehammer, operating a Bobcat. She cleaned and did odd jobs for extra money. Guzman didn’t speak any English and didn’t have a single relative in the United States. She had Antoni, and Kevin eventually joined them. They scraped by.

Then the pandemic hit.

The construction work halted and Antoni was sent home to finish kindergarten on a computer. Guzman has an informal agreement with her landlord, not an official lease, so she didn’t qualify for any rent relief and wasn’t getting any government aid. She took cleaning jobs where she could find them, but could work only when someone could watch Antoni. (Kevin is grown and no longer lives with them.)

A person can’t drive a construction vehicle, or clean an office building, or serve fast food from home. To care for her son, Guzman had to work. When she had to work, she couldn’t care for her son.

It’s a Catch-22 familiar to many single mothers, says Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “Women are being presented with false choices,” Gould said. “You can’t leave your kid home alone and go to work if you don’t have affordable child care. That’s not a choice that you’re making.”

When Marie Fofanah got a job last summer as a home health aide, it felt like a godsend. The pandemic had been catastrophic for the 35-year-old mother of six; her family had to rely on food stamps, they'd had their electricity cut off, and the children had fallen behind in school because there were times Fofanah couldn't pay for Internet.

Butholding on to the new job while holding things together at home proved challenging.

Though Fofanah had been a caregiver before the pandemic and liked the work helping patients, her hours weren’t guaranteed from week to week, so she never knew how much child care she’d need or what days she’d need it. Nor did she know how much money she could expect to earn in any given month, or where she’d be assigned to work. Fofanah, who lives in Silver Spring, doesn’t have a car, so she had to rely on public transportation, adding time to her commutes and dollars to her cumulative babysitting costs. When she did the math on the expenses of actually going to work vs. how much she was making, Fofanah came to the frustrating realization that some days she was barely breaking even.

And when she was at work, things seemed to fall apart at home, even if there was a babysitter in the house. “I’d be at work and the teachers would call me and say, ‘Your daughter is not listening,’ ” she said. “So I’d call my daughter and she’d say, ‘Oh, I’m in class.’ The computer will be on, but the camera is off and they’re playing.”

Fofanah is hopeful that a normal school year this fall will bring some relief, especially now that her youngest is old enough for kindergarten. But there are still the questions of what to do if she has to start work before school opens or can’t get home in time for dismissal, or when school is out of session for staff development days orwhen one of her kids gets sick. Or if a resurgence in coronavirus cases forces their schools to go remote again, all of a sudden, forcing her into another impossible-to-manage situation.

“The decision about whether or not to miss a shift is really a decision about whether or not you can pay your rent or whether you feed your family,” said Courtney Hall, chief executive of Interfaith Works, the organization that helped both Fofanah and Guzman find jobs. “That’s really the burden. And I think it’s hidden.”

Ellens, the Women Employed chief executive, says high-quality, affordable child care, guaranteed sick leave, predictable schedules and higher wages are necessary to ease that burden in a way that will allow working moms to bounce back.

“Even pre-pandemic, we knew there were huge barriers to mothers entering the labor force, particularly with young children,” said Gould, the economist. “And we’ve seen women’s participation in the labor force not rise in the last 20 years as it has in many of our peer countries because we don’t have those policies in place to make that choice more viable.”

The pandemic changed everything about family life. These are the parts parents want to keep.

Dana Campbell and Aleathia Adams, who run a career-training program at the D.C.-area YWCA, say they can’t seem to get clients in the door, though they know women need their services — polishing résumés, tutoring women to earn diplomas, helping them prepare for interviews — if they’re going to reenter the workforce. In a normal year, the program helps more than 140 women; this year it’s assisted fewer than 40. Adams says she spent one night last month calling women who had expressed interest in an online career-readiness program but hadn’t followed through. “They say, ‘You know I really wanted to do it. My intention was to do it. But I’ve got so much going on at home that it’s just impossible for me to concentrate,’ ” Adams said.

And it’s not just practical barriers that are keeping mothers from trying to resume the juggling act of being a mom who works outside the home. “The mental stress of this last year and a half or so has just overwhelmed people so much that it’s going to take a minute to recover,” Adams said.

For Fofanah, the reopening of American life does not feel like relief. “I would say my stress level, from 1 to 10, it’s 100,” she said. She knows what some people say about women like her: “She doesn’t want to work. She wants to depend on the government.” She wishes each person who thought that way could slip into her reality for a day.

“I do want to go to work,” she said. “But it’s not easy for us. Not easy at all.”

Some women have given up trying to make near-impossible situations work. Tah Evans was between social work jobs when the pandemic hit. The 46-year-old Brooklyn woman tried to become a contact tracer, which would have allowed her to work remotely and care for her 10-year-old daughter, but she didn't have reliable Internet.

Evans hasn’t given up on rejoining the workforce — she’s trying to get her graphic design business off the ground — but she’s stopped applying to jobs elsewhere. “There was so much chaos,” she said.“I was like, ‘What do I do to maintain myself and continue my goals?’ I was losing myself and imploding.”

Alexis Booker has also stopped looking for work. For the 29-year-old D.C. woman, who was laid off from her medical transport job at the start of the pandemic, figuring out how to work while also shepherding her 9-year-old son through virtual school seemed like a challenge that would require her to split herself in two. Instead, she enrolled in an online program to get a technology certification. She’s hoping to get back into the workforce this fall, but knows it won’t be easy.

“Everybody is stuck in a hole,” she said. “Do you have money to get out to get to the interview? To get back home? It’s little things, but it affects the big picture.”

Guzman doesn’t have the optionof ending her job search. It took on new urgency when Antoni returned to the classroom in mid-May. That meant she had a month to get a job and put aside a little savings so she could afford to pay for child care that would allow her to continue working when school let out for the summer.

And to avoid eviction from their apartment, where a teddy bear sits on a chair in the corner and a painting near the door carries the words “Bless this home.”

On that May morning, Guzman got ready to ride a bus to a nearby suburb that had a few restaurants she heard were hiring. She was hopeful, though not overly optimistic. Guzman has had managers dismiss her outright. “They say, ‘No, because you are a mom and you’re going to miss work,’ ” she said.

That kind of discrimination is against the law, but there are few legal protections for parents who do need to miss work to care for their families. So even if she got hired, she could be fired again.

She got on the bus anyway. She had to, for Antoni. “He is always rooting for me,” she said. “He’s a little boy but he tells me, ‘Don’t worry, Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to take care of you.’ ”

By early June, Guzman was hired by a cleaning company to work full time. It seemed, again, like a godsend. Until she found out two weeks later that the job was temporary and could end at any time. That same day, Antoni’s summer break began; he would once again need full-time care.

The little boy’s prayer — a job for his mom — was answered. But for Guzman and so many moms like her, that answer is rarely complete. It just raises a new set of questions.