I-TEAM: Pandemic flips the switch for mothers in the workforce

Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 6:30 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The pandemic threw a massive curveball at working parents, leaving many having to choose between working or staying home to take care of children who are learning virtually.

We found women are leaving the workforce at a rate four times higher than that of men. The on and off closings of daycares and schools have pushed more mothers to take the bulk of the responsibility.

Our I-Team found that the long-term implications of this mass exodus could undo years of progress.

Let’s take a flashback to the early 20th Century where most women in the United States did not work outside the home.

The woman’s movement in the 60′s and 70′s gave way to equal rights and opportunities in the workforce, and by the 90′s, more women than ever had careers and most families became dual-income.

Now in 2021, we are seeing a shift in the workforce as the pandemic is forcing many working mothers back home.

“Basic school supplies that my kids may need while I am homeschooling -- a clock because we are going to be teaching them how to tell time this year.”

Christie Caputo spent the last decade working as an assistant physical therapist at an Augusta hospital. But her life now is nothing like the before times.

“It’s hard,” she said.

A few weeks ago, she made one of the hardest decisions of her life. She gave up a career she loved to care for and now teaches the ones she loves most.

“A daycare would shut down and then it would shut down for a couple of weeks which is hard to manage,” she said.

Juggling a full-time position and four children under the age of seven during a pandemic became too difficult.

“When you take away the primary source for childcare, which is happening in daycare centers and happening in schools, the obligation reverts back to women,” Dr. Dustin Avent-Holt, professor of sociology at Augusta University, said.

“There is this clash between their responsibilities to take care of children who are now not able to go to school, and their responsibility in the workplace. They’re being forced to choose to stay home, creating a model that looks just how it did 25 years ago,” he said.

He’s right: more working women are leaving the workforce.

The I-Team requested data from the Georgia Department of Labor and found that in just the first 6 months of 2020, 485,000 women filed unemployment claims in the state.

Compared to 60,000 claims in 2019, that’s an astonishing 708 percent increase from the previous year.

And when our I-Team looked nationwide, more than 12 million women lost jobs during the peak of the pandemic last year between February and April. Since then, only half have returned to work.

The data shows job losses hit black women the hardest.

Augusta mother Tiese Wells lost her only source of income this past summer around the same time she learned she had cancer.

“Right now, it is very difficult,” she said. “It can get hard being a single parent. Really, really hard.”

“Have you had to choose between career and health or career and daughter or all three?” I asked.

“All three,” she said.

Picking up a new job or even in-class learning for her daughter would mean risking exposure, and thus risking her life.

“You only get one you,” Wells said.

Another mother, Stacey Garner, is trying just to keep up with life.

“Very, very overwhelmed,” she said. “I feel like there are so many balls juggling, you don’t know which is going to fall at which time.”

She’s juggling two small businesses at Surrey Center in Augusta and taking care of two small children.

“You don’t know who is going to call what day with what I need to get tested today,” she said, “and still juggle this it’s quite an act as you well know.

I do know, as March will make a year that I have performing my own juggling act from home.

“It’s incumbent on employers to think about how to structure a family-friendly workplace,” Dr. Holt said.

Which he believes would keep more women in the workforce.

“When anyone leaves the labor force, they are their promotion prospects, their status when they re-enter the workforce is generally worse than someone who maintains continuous employment,” Dr. Hold explained.

So, what are the three mothers going to do now?

Caputo will maintain her training and license. She is pressing pause on her career to play a new role in this new world.

“We decided for our family it was that is what is best for our children at this time,” she said.

Wells is working her way back into the workforce, picking up work as a marketer and decorator.

“I try to think of other ways to bring income,” she said.

In-store sales are down, but Garner made adjustments to keep revenue flowing and her workers employed. She launched an online shop.

“I think the whole dynamic of the workforce is changing,” she said.

Different careers, different backgrounds, different challenges but all mothers doing what mothers do best: loving and supporting their family to the best of their abilities.

Experts say companies with flexible paid time off or PTO and family are most likely to keep employees, both mothers, and fathers, from leaving their positions. It pays off in the long run too, by saving companies time and money in recruitment and training.

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