Reprinted from the Council on Contemporary Families Brief Reports published on April 20, 2023.
It is widely known that mothers’ employment has suffered most during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, however, most discussions about the causes of the pandemic-induced “she-session” have focused on the impact of school closures and lack of child care. Yet, none of those factors explains the slow initial recovery of women’s employment after businesses and school reopened following lockdowns in Spring 2020 and, most recently, a striking decline in women’s labor force participation in Fall 2022 after it had finally rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. This recent decline occurred in spite of low unemployment, high demand for labor, increased bargaining power for workers, and new concerns to increase family income because of inflation.
Our new study recently published in Socius reveals a largely overlooked factor driving mothers’ employment after initial COVID lockdowns – their concerns for public health.
Using data from the Study on Parents’ Divisions of Labor During COVID-19 (SPDLC) on 263 partnered US mothers who were employed prior to the pandemic, we examined how mothers’ concerns about COVID (whether they worried that someone they know will contract COVID) shaped their labor force participation in the Fall of 2020. Indeed, polls in 2020 showed that Americans were markedly concerned about contracting and spreading COVID in Fall 2020. Three-quarters of mothers polled in one survey worried that their child or someone in their family would fall ill if their child returned to in-person school. Results from our study echoed these findings. More than three-quarters of mothers in the SPDLC agreed or strongly agreed that they worried that someone they know would contract COVID. Importantly, mothers who were more worried about COVID were less likely to be employed, and among those that were still employed, worked fewer hours per week.
Our aim was to examine not only whether – but also why – mothers’ COVID concerns affected their employment and paid work hours. We examined three possible pathways through which mothers’ COVID concerns could have impacted their labor force participation: 1) the frequency of children’s attendance of in-person school/childcare, 2) mothers’ remote work, and 3) mothers’ stress.
One of the primary reasons worried mothers worked less was because their concerns about COVID were associated with children spending more time at home and less time at school or daycare. Simply put: the more time children spent at home, the less likely mothers were to be employed. Mothers’ COVID concerns help us understand not only their delay in returning to the labor force, but also why despite substantial efforts to reopen schools across the U.S. in Fall 2020 so many children continued to learn remotely.
Among mothers who were still employed in Fall 2020, their concerns about COVID were associated with fewer work hours not only because these concerns led to more time with children at home, but also because keeping children home resulted in more stress for mothers. Working remotely was associated with fewer paid work hours for mothers. While the flexibility that remote work seemingly provides is often assumed to be a means of managing work-family conflict for mothers, it may actually exacerbate gender inequalities in families. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, working remotely in response to keeping children home to reduce COVID exposure appears to have constrained mothers’ abilities to work.
Though our study focused on Fall 2020, its findings have important implications for our broader understanding of mothers’ employment, particularly in regards to recent declines in the face of the “tripledemic” of flu, RSV, and COVID cases in Fall 2022/Winter 2023. Our study suggests that the sudden downturn in women’s employment in Fall 2022 despite what had been a steady increase in labor force participation since 2021, is due at least in part to processes similar to those observed in Fall 2020.
Every fall, Americans are warned about the upcoming cold and flu season. Now with COVID becoming seemingly endemic, and seasonal threats of surges in other diseases like RSV and strep throat, these warnings have become particularly dire. Alongside risks to families’ and children’s health, surges in serious transmittable disease, which are becoming more frequent post-COVID, pose a threat to gender equality. Because of a lack of widespread paid sick leave, rising rates of infectious diseases can make it difficult for parents – and especially mothers – to continue working. Whether it’s strategizing ways to keep kids from getting sick or caring for them when they fall ill, mothers are generally the family health manager and the parent to cut back on work hours to care for kids at home when illness strikes.
As long as COVID and other infectious disease transmission mitigation is largely dependent upon vaccines and antibiotics rather than other public health measures (masking, paid sick leave, etc.), mothers will remain less likely to make a full return to the labor force due to legitimate concerns about their children’s and family’s members health and safety or will see wild seasonal fluctuations in employment that may negatively affect their careers and job prospects. Indeed, approximately 3 in 5 Americans remain concerned about coronavirus and the ‘tripledemic’ further increased fears of illness among parents. Though mothers’ labor force participation appears to have once again recovered from its dip at the end of 2022, if we fail to address mothers’ concerns about COVID and other infectious diseases as they arise, not only is it likely that mothers’ employment will continue to oscillate wildly during periods of high transmission but current and future pandemics are likely to also continue to dampen mothers’ employment and have substantial consequences for gender equality.
A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Daniel L. Carlson, Associate Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, Priya Fielding-Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Consumer Studies, University of Utah, Richard Petts, Professor, Department of Sociology, Ball State University, and Kristi Williams, Professor, Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University.