Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on May 4, 2021. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2021” stories here.
Editor’s Note: This is one of four stories published today examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on single mothers. Photographer Yehyun Kim and reporters with the CT Mirror tracked the lives of the three women profiled in these stories over the last nine months, interviewing and photographing them as they experienced lockdown with their children and as the state began to open up last month.
Working mothers in Connecticut and across the nation have been disproportionately impacted from the pandemic, experiencing everything from job loss to increased household and child care burdens. But these impacts are being felt most sharply by single mothers, who have endured through COVID without the support of a second parent.
“They’re stretched to the limit,” said Dr. Marika Lindholm, former lecturer at Northwestern University and founder of support network Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere. “They were already stretched before, and now it’s just so much more psychologically and physically and financially to contend with.”
According to the National Women’s Law Center, 2.3 million women have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic. Their labor force participation rate was 57% in February, compared with 59.2% in February 2020, and had not been this low since 1988. One recent McKinsey study on working women found that six years of progress in women’s equality could be erased by COVID as women leave the workplace and, due in part to lack of child care options, don’t come back.
In Connecticut, a recent study by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women on women’s economic security during COVID surveyed 1,020 women — representing a pool that closely mirrored the state’s demographics — from October 5 to February 5. It found that 26.5% of women have either been furloughed or lost their jobs due to COVID.
Women made up 58% of the service industry before COVID hit, according to another Pew report, and by mid-April, nearly 5.7 million women had lost those jobs, compared with 3.2 million men.
The toll on women is so severe it was acknowledged by President Joe Biden during his April 28 address to Congress as he announced a plan to invest $225 billion for child care initiatives that, among other things, would make it easier for women to stay employed.
“Two million women have dropped out of the workforce during this pandemic — two million. And too often because they couldn’t get the care they needed to care for their child or care for an elderly parent who needs help,” Biden said.
But in many ways, the pandemic pressures that have harmed all women have hit single moms even harder.
Nationally, mothers of young children lost work at three times the rate of fathers in the pandemic—a 12% drop between February and August, according to a September Pew Stateline report. The loss was even worse for single mothers, who lost 16% of jobs in that time period, compared with a 6% drop for single fathers.
According to the analysis, in April 2020, the number of single mothers with jobs was 22% lower than it was in April 2019, compared with a 9% decline for other families with children.
In Connecticut, single parent households were already struggling disproportionately pre-COVID. According to the 2020 ALICE Report by Connecticut United Way, which gives an annual report on basic cost of living in the state, 73% of households led by single moms don’t make enough to cover their basic needs, whereas 38% of all households statewide fall beneath that threshold.
The PCSW study found that single moms reported a higher incidence of housing insecurity and impaired ability to buy food during COVID compared with the total population of women surveyed — 30.2% relative to 21.3% for housing insecurity, and 16.5% relative to 11.5% for difficulty buying food.
“Single moms already have a big burden on them,” Lindholm said. “They’re sacrificing so much for their kids. They’re sacrificing sleep, they’re sacrificing self-care. They’re already vulnerable; they’re already at risk. And then you add this whole component of being isolated, and not having the community that you normally rely on.”
In PCSW’s study, when women were asked what single factor would most support their economic security, the top response was support for balancing work and child care responsibilities, including child care affordability and capacity, children in school and flexible work arrangements.
There are barriers to accessing child care, and struggles the child care industry itself is facing, that compound to impair women.
“If you’re a single parent, unless you happen to be a single lawyer or something, you’re probably not making enough money to pay for care at the market rate,” said Merrill Gay, executive director of the Early Childhood Alliance.
For those who potentially qualify for a child care subsidy under Connecticut Care 4 Kids, Gay described the process as a “chicken and egg” scenario.
“You need to have child care to get the job, but you need the job to qualify for child care,” he said. Even after applying, it can take a month to get approved, whereas other states give up to three months’ subsidy up front, he said.
Biden’s recently passed federal stimulus package includes $40 billion for child care around the country, $276 million of which will go to Connecticut. In March, Governor Ned Lamont dedicated $50 million of that sum over two years to expanding eligibility to parents enrolled in higher education and workforce training programs, with the aim of supporting those preparing to return to the workforce.
Even when approved, families usually must pay a monthly fee to receive their subsidies. In December, Governor Lamont dedicated $8 million to waiving these fees for six months, from April 1 to September 30, 2021—an average of $129 per month for families.
Still, there are many who remain left out. Among the ineligible are those in the state who fall between the poverty line and the ALICE threshold – more than a quarter of households led by single moms.
To further help families, Biden’s COVID relief plan includes an expanded child tax credit. Families this year will receive a $3,000 benefit per child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 per child under 6, up from $2,000 per child. Some of this will come in the form of monthly checks from July to December, of $250 per month for each child ages 6 to 17, and $300 per month for children under 6, in what resembles a form of guaranteed basic income.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, has championed these policies for decades and wants to make them permanent, a step that has been framed as a vital step toward a policy framework that would better support working women.
Tina Courpas, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, stressed the importance of the stimulus money for child care, an industry that encompasses “women’s ability to work and advance in their career.” But in order to make lasting change in Connecticut’s child care infrastructure, legislators need to think about the long term, she said.
“After the next two years, when these allocations are used up, there will be somewhat of a cliff — what happens after that?” Courpas said. “Because there’s funding in the system to try some of these expansions and pilot certain solutions, this is an ideal time for us to test drive some of these solutions and see if they can be implemented in the long term.”
Single moms already have a big burden on them. They’re already vulnerable; they’re already at risk. And then you add this whole component of being isolated, and not having the community that you normally rely on. ”
Reduced demand due to COVID has put the entire industry in jeopardy — in Connecticut, child care centers receive state funding based on the number of students enrolled. According to Gay, more than 100 daycare centers and more than 100 licensed family child care providers have closed during the pandemic.
“When we start to really reopen the economy more, it’s gonna be slowed down by the fact that there isn’t child care capacity,” he said. Numerous experts have cited this as a cause of concern for women’s return to the labor force. In August 2020, the Census Bureau found that 19.6% of unemployed working-age adults weren’t working because COVID had disrupted their child care arrangements, of which women aged 25-44 were almost three times as likely as men to say they weren’t working due to child care demands.
The child care industry’s struggle impacts not only the mothers it serves, but also the women it employs. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 95% of child care workers nationally are women — and 1 in 6 child care jobs across the nation have been lost since the start of the pandemic. They were paid a “poverty wage” to begin with — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2020 report, child care workers make a median hourly wage of $12.98 in Connecticut. Further, UC Berkeley’s 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index found that “for a single adult with one child, median child care worker wages do not meet a living wage in any state.”
“We don’t value the work of people who work in early childhood enough,” Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said. “The only way to address that is to think about [child care] as critical infrastructure for our society. Connecticut needs to partner with the federal government to finally get a handle on this problem.”
Gay said the state is working on distributing the $120 million allocated for grants to child care providers—applications will open soon to providers. The money will be vital to help providers “get stabilized,” Gay said.
Jill Marini, director of early learning and school age programs for YWCA Hartford, said that the five sites she runs are operating at around 50% capacity. In the fall, it ranged from 25% to 50%, but as parents become more comfortable and optimistic and vaccinations have been rolling out, enrollment is “slowly creeping up.”
“Because there’s so many spaces available, and they’re not being filled, the math [has made] less and less sense,” she said. They closed their Manchester site at the end of October.
She expects the upcoming grant money to help immensely with basic operating costs such as staffing, purchasing supplies like bleach and hand sanitizers, and supporting administrative efforts to apply for more grants.
“Every dollar that comes to us counts,” she said. “We’re an underfunded field anyway, we’re an underfunded part of the community. Every grant helps.”
Even single moms who still have jobs, and can do those jobs from home, are worse off than their partnered or childfree counterparts. A fall 2020 study suggests that the pandemic has outsized impacts on mothers working remotely. They spend more time doing housework than their spouses, work more often with children present, and more frequently report feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression.
“We very specifically find that telecommuting really worsens mothers’ work environment, in a way that it doesn’t for fathers,” said Thomas Lyttleton, a PhD student in Yale University’s department of sociology and the lead author for the paper.
A May 2020 report from Boston Consulting Group found that since quarantine began, parents spend an average of 27 more hours a week on domestic labor like chores and child care, with women performing 15 more hours per week than their spouses.
The PCSW study reported that 66.1% of Connecticut women with dependent children said their ability to work had been impaired due to increased home demands.
“Everything is going to be worse for single mothers,” Lyttleton added. “Even though we see these inequalities at a couple level, where mothers do a lot more housework, fathers at least do some. And so in situations in which there’s only one parent to do both the entirety of child care and housework and hold down a job, and also all the institutional child care is closed in many locations — that is just a terrible terrible situation.”
The PCSW study also reported that 49.8% of Connecticut women experienced an impairment to their mental health due to COVID. This was the “single most uniformly reported factor” across race, ethnicity, age, income level and geography, Courpas said.
Kimberly Cuevas, a professor in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Psychological Sciences who studies executive function in the brain, emphasized the pandemic’s mental impact on both caregivers and their kids.
“Stress can have a negative impact on our ability to use our critical thinking, or our higher-order thinking skills,” she said. This includes our “ability to focus our attention, especially when there’s distraction, to resist temptation, to take our time to think before responding.”
This can be especially difficult for single moms, who suffer a greater lack of support, she said.
“Their support network’s not there,” she said. “Even family support too—you’re social distancing from extended family, or even your friends, who are your support network. There are no playdates, et cetera.”
These conditions are made worse by lack of supportive labor policy and flexible work arrangements.
In 2019, the state passed a paid family and medical leave bill that will guarantee all workers up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for an ill relative or a new child, or if they themselves are sick. This takes effect in January 2022.
In the meantime, a federal law passed in March gave only a patchwork framework for paid time off, leaving it to be decided on an employer-by-employer basis and failing to guarantee it for all workers. For example, the law excludes companies with more than 500 employees, and small companies can apply for an exemption.
Most recently, Biden’s American Rescue Plan includes 15 weeks of paid family and medical leave for full time federal employees and expands tax credits to incentivize employers to offer paid time off. But still, there is no universal guarantee for all workers.
A lot of the issues that are common to all women are more acute with the most vulnerable women. Single working mothers are by definition alone with dependents, have only one income in the household, and only one parent, and often have more difficult childcare arrangements.””
“As someone who’d been working on paid family medical leave for several years, I can’t help but look at what’s happening right now and think, what a difference this policy would have made if we got our acts together and put it in place sooner,” Flexer said. Even with Connecticut’s law in place, the situation wouldn’t be perfect. “Some countries give new parents up to a year of paid leave,” she pointed out.
In the meantime, fair labor laws would also have been helpful for women during this time. Lindsay Farrell, former state director of the Connecticut Working Families Party and now senior political strategist for the national organization, described the importance of fair workplace scheduling practices to counter the effects of “on call scheduling.”
“Per current rules in the state of Connecticut, if you work at a McDonald’s or Target or one of those stores, they can require that you be on call up to the day before,” she said. “That means they can tell you at 11:30 at night, you need to be in to help open the store at 7 in the morning—or they can tell you you’re unneeded. There’s no requirement about giving people reasonable notice.”
The inability to have notice before a shift, or to generally know what their work week might look like, saddles workers with a sense of instability and unpredictability, she said, making it difficult, “especially with a lacking public transportation system that we have in Connecticut, to juggle things like child care, to have a second job to pick up more income, to juggle any other responsibilities.”
These difficulties are felt most sharply by women, who not only make up a disproportionate share of the service sector, including food service and hospitality, but also shoulder more responsibilities at home.
“[Fair workplace scheduling] would help every hourly low wage workers, but would mean more for women,” Farrell said.
Comprehensive fair work week laws have been implemented in Oregon state-wide, as well as in five cities, including New York City and Seattle. Previous attempts to implement similar laws in Connecticut have failed.
“A lot of the issues that are common to all women are more acute with the most vulnerable women,” Courpas said. “Single working mothers are by definition alone with dependents, have only one income in the household, and only one parent, and often have more difficult childcare arrangements.”
Overall, the PCSW report “provided tangible evidence of Connecticut’s she-cession, and depth about the drivers of that impact,” she said, which they plan to use to support legislation on a host of issues like expanding child care subsidy eligibility and expanding the definition of domestic violence to cover coercive control to expand support for victims.
She said she hopes the data will also be helpful for driving long-term efforts to support the equitable implementation of paid family medical leave and eliminate the gender pay gap.
“We hope the data can be a driver for real bipartisan solutions,” she said.