Between the two of us, we have two full-time jobs, two full-time employed spouses, three kids five and younger, and five furry family members. Our lives these past months since our city issued a shelter in place directive can only be described as the second shift on overdrive. Coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, the “second shift” refers to all the unpaid childcare labor and housework that must be done before, after, and scattered throughout the “first shift” of paid jobs. Women still do most of the second shift, and that will not likely change as more of us work from home while caring for and educating children full time. A recent article by Laura Bennett on “A Day in the Life Without Childcare” provides a moment-by-moment account of how this unfolds for many U.S. families. It also hints at how this crisis is exacerbating gender inequalities in carework that existed long before the first COVID-19 diagnosis.
“BBC Dad” getting interrupted by his two tots bursting into the room during his live broadcast interview last year has been viewed almost 40 million times on YouTube. Recently the comedic clip has been recirculated online as a prescient warning to parents about the woes of working from home. But mothers everywhere know it is less likely that somebody will run into the room to save them when their children crash their fourth Zoom meeting of the day. Even Senator Tammy Duckworth had to slip into mom mode while “social distancing” and virtually attending meetings from home. Our own children have made clothes-free appearances and insisted on saying “Hi Grandad!” to grandparental look-a-likes during virtual meetings. Capturing the unique intensity of the second shift during all this, we have traded pictures of working with kids—from our bathrooms.
These moments of holding meetings and returning emails while overseeing bath time and potty-training force us to reckon with stark inequities related to who does the hard, crucial, and underpaid labor of caring for children. Before our jobs as sociology professors transitioned online and the shelter in place order accompanied full or partial closures of schools and daycares, we relied on the labor of a committed community of childcare providers. All our children have attended the same childcare center since they were very young infants. The day-to-day work of our upper middle-class professional jobs—positions that get celebrated as a win for gender equality every year as part of the Women’s History Month events at our institution—has only been possible because Maria, Kiera, and Sara, and so many others have been there to feed, diaper, teach, protect, and love our babies.
Like millions of other parents in the U.S., we recently made the hard choice to keep our children home as part of coronavirus containment efforts. As we struggled this month to integrate the first and second shifts, half of the beloved staff of our childcare center was laid off. Many of the women who for years have nurtured our children and enabled our well-paying jobs just lost theirs. They join the 33.5 million who have applied for unemployment nationwide over the past two months.
This is one of many intersecting gender, race, and class inequalities severely worsened by the coronavirus crisis. Women, disproportionately women of color and immigrant women, provide almost all of the outsourced childcare labor for privileged families like ours. More than 9 in 10 childcare workers are women, and their average hourly wage is less than $10, or about $21,000 a year for full-time work. If a childcare worker is supporting herself and two other family members, her annual earnings, assuming she gets full-time work, is not enough to keep her family out of poverty.
What, then, does all of this mean now that many of these care providers are out of work?
It demonstrates the frail and fraught state of any progress made for women in middle-class professional occupations. It throws into sharp relief how that progress was made by one class of women on the backs of other women who stepped in to carry out the undervalued, yet necessary work of childcare staff and nannies. Many women with secure salaried jobs who have the option to work from home now find themselves on double duty managing simultaneous parenting and paid work responsibilities. The coping mechanism to avoid burnout is usually to cut back on work productivity. In 2015, Pew Research Center reported that working mothers were more likely than working fathers to say that parenthood interfered with their career. Yet childcare workers face an even more impossible situation: reduced hours, layoffs, and a patchwork system of emergency protections to keep a roof over their heads with the lights turned on. The gendered division of labor and the unequal burden it placed on women never went away. It just shifted on to certain women, predominately women of color, who were underpaid and are now unemployed.
There is little indication thus far that our government will help them. On March 27, Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package. For their part, the childcare industry initially asked for $50 billion to mitigate devastating financial losses and prevent permanent facility closures as the majority of parents opt to keep their young children at home. The final bill earmarks for the childcare industry only $3.5 billion out of the $6.3 billion allocated to the Administration for Children and Families—merely 7 percent of the initially requested amount. The sum is so small relative to what other industries will receive that the media is hardly even reporting on it. By comparison, the airline industry is slated to get $58 billion, almost 17 times more than the industry that cares for many of the children of pilots, flight attendants, and passengers.
This is deeply symbolic of how little our society values the labor of childcare, whether it is carried out by parents or dedicated childcare workers. It also reflects long-standing political struggles to throw public support behind childcare as a profession worthy of significant respect and remuneration. Our country did so once before during another international crisis: World War II. Between 1943 and 1946, the federal government ran a publicly funded childcare system to support the influx of mothers, including those of young children, into the paid labor force needed to support the war effort. Several decades later, Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which would have created a national daycare system universally available to families for an income-based sliding scale fee. The government, Nixon reasoned, had no business raising children, a task best suited for parents, namely mothers. Unfortunately, that meant that most U.S. mothers were left on their own to figure out how to balance the demands of childrearing with the economic imperative to work outside the home for pay. Then, as now, they turned to underpaid and undervalued childcare workers.
It is not happenstance that an occupation comprised mostly of women of color is being further marginalized and rendered invisible by the COVID-19 crisis. Rarely has our government acknowledged the household labor taken on by women as work. During the New Deal era, the federal government declined to extend national labor laws to domestic workers—who were predominately Black women. Here, too, in our country’s legislative history, women of color shouldered the progress made towards recognizing the value and essential role of childcare and household labor. As Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, authors of A Black Women’s History of the United States, note, the collective action of Black women was the driving force behind legislation in the 1970s that extended minimum wage laws and unemployment benefits to domestic laborers.
That it took four decades to extend basic labor protections to those whose work maintains households and raises children speaks volumes. In the 21st century, women of color, now including immigrant women, are leading the fight again. Our society’s tendency to undervalue and exploit feminized labor has hardly subsided. The women—women of color, immigrant women, working-class women—who took on the roles of paid caregivers and domestic laborers so that middle-class women could pursue professional careers bear the full consequences of a society that has never paid them what they are worth.
As we face the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have another opportunity to right the wrongs of our country’s historical legacy of devaluing the childcare profession and the invaluable national service they provide. The plight of women during the COVID-19 pandemic is a critical subject of discussion, but one that warrants an intersectional lens. Feminized and racialized labor is always underpaid. The women who carried out this labor for pay are joining the unemployment lines with little in reserves to pay the bills in the meantime. Their labor has always been deemed as somehow unessential to the economy and a thriving labor market. But ask any professional work-at-home mother right now how “essential” childcare and domestic workers are. If she’s able to find a spare moment between all the emails, video conferences, alphabet lessons, and diaper changes, she’ll tell you.
Amber Crowell is Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at California State University, Fresno. She studies and writes about residential segregation, racial and ethnic inequality, social demography, and housing.
Jennifer Randles is Chair and Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at California State University, Fresno. She studies and writes about family policy, racial and gender inequalities, childhood, and parenting.