I reached out to Rios and her attorney this week to get an update. She’s interviewing for new positions but, Rios’s attorney, Daphne Delvaux, told me via an email she is “not yet employed.”
Rios is far from alone. Unemployment is high, and the jobs recovery is weak — in January, the economy added a mere 49,000 positions. But American women are experiencing it as not just a jobs crisis but a personal one. It’s not simply that women — especially Black and Latino women, whose unemployment numbers are higher — tend to disproportionately work in the sort of customer-facing positions that have been hit hard by furloughs and layoffs related to combating the spread of covid-19. The issue is the children.
As many child-care centers remain closed and in-school learning, in many regions of the country, remains resolutely online, someone needs to watch the children, who were, like many of us, suddenly home all the time. And, no surprise, for the vast majority, it was the mom who took on the bulk of this work, supervising acting as unpaid teacher’s assistants, tackling the increased housework that results when everyone is home all the time, and serving as always-on playmates.
The impact for many women has been cataclysmic. Last summer, a Center for American Progress study revealed one-third of unemployed women under the age of 40 — the "millennial mothers” — said the reason they were not working was that they needed to mind children. In September, when the school year resumed, several hundred thousand women exited the world of work, seemingly forced out by an unsolvable dilemma. And while the January jobs report showed gains for women, it also revealed an additional 275,000 of them ceased employment or looking for work, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Women’s workforce participation rates are now what they were in the late 1980s. Decades of women’s progress at work and at home have been wiped out in a matter of months.
“America’s mothers are in crisis,” the New York Times proclaimed this week, but that’s an understatement. America’s mothers have been in crisis for decades. Even before the pandemic, women experienced a harder time in the workforce. Women are less likely to be promoted than men, and they are judged more harshly for failures. Motherhood causes women’s income to fall, but fathers earn more than childless men. Female employees with children are viewed as less competent on the job. Child-care costs more than in-state public college tuition in a majority of states.
Covid-19 took a bad situation and made it much worse. Remote working, celebrated for offering flexibility, results in many, many more hours on the work clock. And of course, in the majority of homes, women continue to perform more child care and housework than men. The motherhood employment crisis, for many, is now a four-alarm fire.
Our pandemic period is marked by delusional thinking across the political spectrum. Some fantastical thinking is obviously wrong: The coronavirus really does exist, masks do combat its spread, and, no, our society is not run by a secretive cabal of child molesters. But the idea that we could shut down sections of society in order to protect public health and, with enough money from the federal government, watch everything get restored quickly to how it all was on March 1 of last year as the pandemic recedes is also looking increasingly like an illusion, too.
There are predictions that the full number of jobs lost won’t be regained until the end of the decade. The longer someone is out of a job, the harder it is to get another one. Women whose résumés indicate they are mothers are less likely to get job callbacks. Fast-forward 25, 40, heck, 50 years from now, and there will still be women with lesser amounts of retirement savings who are receiving smaller Social Security checks in old age — all because of what happened to them in 2020.
How — and if — we will ever make up for all this damage remains unknown. The jobs recovery can be described as limping along, at best. Teachers in many areas of the country remain resistant to returning to schools. In the meantime, the pandemic, it seems, reminded everyone that women will sacrifice their own professional future and emotional well-being to take care of their loved ones. That genie, I suspect, is going to be a hard one to put back in the bottle.