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Job or kids? One in three working moms forced to choose as pandemic enters Year Two.

Kids at home, chores, and full-time career? Philly's burnt-out moms quit jobs in droves, setting women back for years. Solutions? Flex time, backup childcare and $39 billion in federal relief.

Ellen Yin, owner of Fork stands in her Old City establishment on March 1, 2021.
Ellen Yin, owner of Fork stands in her Old City establishment on March 1, 2021.Read moreJonathan Wilson

After 15 years in a high-paying finance job, Joanna Lepore knew she’d have to quit, for a once-unthinkable reason — she has children.

“I never had any intention of leaving my job,” said the married mother of two kids under 10 years of age living in Haddonfield. But working remotely — while home-schooling her son and watching her toddler daughter shut out of day care — burned her out.

With child care and schools closed, the veteran of the Wall Street investment firm PIMCO left her job onboarding clients in August, just before the remote school year resumed. Her husband is employed in food distribution and works outside the home.

Lepore, 38, has lots of company. Women have borne a greater share of job losses during the pandemic. One in three working mothers is considering leaving the workforce or downshifting careers, which could stunt their incomes for decades, surveys show. Women already shoulder more responsibility for the domestic and emotional work in a family — disparities heightened by COVID — and typically make less than men — 82 cents on the dollar.

Now entering Year Two of the coronavirus, women increasingly are forced to choose: career or family?

Study after study, including a recent McKinsey 2020 report, show that women reduced work hours, or left jobs altogether, to care for children, said coauthor Jessica Huang, a partner in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office. “The higher load of household work and child care means women are feeling burnt out more than male counterparts.”

Job losses among men (5.1%) and women (5.9%) between January 2020 and January 2021 show women pay the price. For women of color, unemployment is higher. More than 1 in 12 Black women (8.5%) were unemployed in January 2021.

“Women of color bear the brunt,” said Tina Tchen, CEO of the nonprofit Times Up Now, which fights gender discrimination in the workplace. “The pandemic exposed long-standing lack of caregiver infrastructure for all women.”

Now some employers have increased paid leave or stipends to keep women in the ranks. The federal government and states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey are also spending millions of dollars to rescue shuttered day-care centers and enable women to keep working. But will it be enough?

“I had to be strong for everyone”

Ellen Yin, one of Philly’s top restaurateurs, had to fire 150 workers last spring, roughly 90% of her staff.

“Our industry has large numbers of undocumented workers and immigrants, many of whom never had income before,” she said. “They don’t qualify for unemployment, and that weighs on us.”

During the pandemic, she was also caring for her elderly mother, who had a debilitating stroke. “We weren’t able to have caregivers come, and she needs 24-hour-a-day supervision,” Yin said.

In between applying for emergency loans for her business, Yin drove an hour each way to pick up her mother’s helper multiple times per week.

“My mom gets up every hour some nights. I typically get five to six hours’ sleep,” she said. “I function.”

As a senior leader in her industry, Yin felt the pressure to be always “on,” especially for her workers who remained. “I had to be strong for everyone. Even though leaders don’t have any better clue than anyone else. I haven’t cried in front of them — yet.”

And her businesses? “We’re not thriving, but we’re surviving.”

Dropping out

In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, a perfect storm of child-care gaps and school blackouts is crippling the careers of women, especially those caring for younger kids.

By any measure, child-care centers across America have struggled. Enrollment last spring cratered and never fully rebounded. Fresh expenses, from protective gear to deep cleaning, put them deeper in the hole, forcing up to 40% of U.S. day cares to shutter. Those that remain enrolled fewer children.

The pandemic also forced most schools in the region to close over the last year. Philadelphia public schools just reopened a few classes last week after 361 days of closure. Wealthier suburban districts brought back children earlier but with shorter hours. Disruption was nearly universal.

The combination walloped working women, creating a “pink collar recession,” said Diane Cornman-Levy, executive director of Women’s Way in Philadelphia.

By February, more than 2.3 million American women had dropped out completely from the labor force since the start of the pandemic. That dragged down women’s labor-force participation rate – the percent of adult women working or looking for work – to 57%. Pre-pandemic, women’s labor participation rate had not been this low since 1988.

By comparison, 1.8 million men left the labor force since February 2020.

Overall, Greater Philadelphia’s employment rate fell 8 percentage points to 68.4% between 2020 and 2019, according to Philadelphia Federal Reserve data. The decline was especially fueled by job losses among members of three demographic groups who had obtained no more than a high school diploma: Black men, Black women, and Hispanic women, Fed researcher Keith Wardrip found.

Unemployment hit those groups hardest — employment-rate declines approached or topped 20 percentage points for these subsets of workers vs. a year ago.

The unemployment rate for women in the Philly region (6%) is still nearly twice as high as it was in February 2020 (3.1%).

Nationally, nearly 1 in 11 Latinas (8.5%), and more than 1 in 13 Asian women (7.9%) remained unemployed, according to the National Women’s Law Center. For white women, the rate was 5.2%.

It’s largely women working America’s low-paying jobs.

“A lot of these industries are heavily female, particularly food and beverage and hospitality. Those were hit first and hardest. Women are naturally adversely impacted,” said Doneene Damon, managing partner of the Richards, Layton & Finger law firm in Wilmington.

“It’s been the perfect storm,” Damon said. “We’re now in year two. Everyone’s exhausted. Women are completely overwhelmed with child care and household care, plus their jobs.”

One attorney faked leaving her house every day, got in her car, and waved goodbye to her 3-year old, then sneaked back in the house to work upstairs, Damon said. Others put red-light/green-light signs on guestroom doors so they could “teach the kids to follow those instructions and not interrupt.”

Her 85-year-old mother assumed Damon was available all the time because “I was home. Even today, late in the afternoon, my mother knows it’s safe to come into my office. I don’t schedule Zoom calls at that time, because she wants to be with me.”

`I either sacrifice my family or my career’

Without school, day care, or outside help, women are more likely than male colleagues to leave jobs or work less. This hurts earnings for years, from middle-class women to high earners.

“I reached a breaking point,” said Lepore. “I loved my job and people I worked with, aside from a boss who demanded a ton of face time, and, strangely enough, was a woman. There was no way I’d make it through with my sanity intact. I either sacrifice my family or my career.”

She recently started remote work at the financial services firm IHS Markit with a more understanding boss.

The United States is now at risk of losing $64.5 billion in economic activity in a year from women’s lost wages — largely due to the lack of child care.

Schools must reopen

Alison Perelman calls the “emotional labor” of working from home the toughest double-duty — attending to a child educated on Zoom, motivating family to stick to a routine, undertaking household chores, and cooking endless meals.

”This falls predominantly on women,” Perelman says. ”As we’ve all made peace with the one-year anniversary, it’s now a hinge point where women are opting out. And once we all start to return to the workplace, it’s not clear to me that because women were first out, will we be first back in?”

As executive director of the political advocacy group Philadelphia 3.0, she’s incredulous that the Philadelphia School District has announced only vague plans to reopen in September.

“Why do we not know? This alone is a catastrophe for working women with dependents, and it’s only part of the tsunami destroying their careers,” said Perelman, who has a 6-year-old.

“For women, there’s no going back to work without school.”

Samantha Matlin, a Center City mother and full-time nonprofit executive, said she is “frustrated at the School District, and the lack of innovation.

“Why haven’t we put the most vulnerable children in some of the office buildings for school?” she said. “That should have been a plan months ago. Philly is such an underdog city, we don’t take advantage of the resources we have.”

Some companies went the extra mile — setting up virtual classrooms within the workplace.

“People are sharing ideas as to how to cope, ideas about arts and crafts, keeping kids busy on an hour-long conference call, or a court hearing, and not look completely chaotic,” said Damon, the Wilmington lawyer.

Hillary Weinstein, 42, cofounded First Law Strategy Group in 2019, just before the pandemic. She felt guilty for not cutting back.

“Some of my friends chose to home-school even though their kids could return” to the classroom. “We didn’t have that option. And I felt like a bad mom for sending them back. I’m the primary breadwinner, and quitting’s not an option financially.”

Start-up as solution

For some women, the pandemic created an opportunity. Marcia Williams, 45, of Conshohocken, worked for five years at QVC as a makeup and hair stylist to on-air personalities, sometimes working through the night on set. She was furloughed last year as the pandemic hit.

“I’m grateful for that time at QVC, but I already had something in mind for my future,” said Williams, who’s both African American and Native American. She began focusing full-time on her own line of lipstick, gloss, and beauty products that are mask-proof, vegan, and cruelty-free. Embellish Beauty Concepts “came into being in 2010, but the pandemic forced me to push forward,” said the married mother of three.

In September, Williams’ line made an appearance on the Today show. She credits her success so far to the “lipstick effect.”

“Women want to feel beautiful during difficult economic times, and often that’s just a splurge on really top-shelf lipstick. The pandemic has really helped drive business in a crazy way, especially for women spending long days on Zoom or for a pick-me-up.”

Williams also hopes to capitalize on Corporate America’s interest in minority- and BIPOC-owned businesses, such as LVMH’s purchase of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty. Williams donates 10% of sales to Big Brother Big Sister, Black Lives Matter, and other nonprofits.

Women of color

Yvonne Ferguson-Hardin is a longtime Philadelphia fitness instructor. She had contracts teaching classes at Center in the Park in Germantown and several nursing homes and assisted living facilities — all of which shut down after the virus hit.

The 56-year-old single mother lives with three children between ages 12 and 20, along with her 94-year-old mother. A native of England, Hardin says: “It’s been a challenge. Juggling everything. Everyone’s home and needs space. And my youngest daughter needs more help. She’s not motivated to do homework or get up on time. There’s no routine, no bus to run for, no reason to get dressed, no friends to see.”

She pivoted to offering remote fitness classes, setting up cameras at her studio at 47 East High St., across from the old Germantown High School.

“I offered free classes initially, so I could just keep going, and people could keep going,” she said. Her business, Fergie’s Instructional Training, dropped off 80% last spring but has recovered to about half of its level before COVID.

Even her oldest daughter was inspired to start taking business college classes after watching Hardin reinvent her fitness courses to include outdoor boot camps near the Wissahickon Creek.

“I’m hearing more women like me trying to create their own businesses out of this,” she said. “They’re trying to survive, to adapt, find a way to make things work. If this happens again, we’re ready. Either sit back and do nothing, or get moving.”

Solutions for corporate employees

If working moms and dads need a national child-care policy, what would that look like? Tchen of Times Up Now says a broad definition includes day care, plus paid family leave, and in-home elder care.

“Two million babies are born every year, and the same number of Americans turn 65 every year. On both ends, this caregiving is a growth industry,” Tchen said.

Some private companies have started paving the way.

Sally Guzik, executive director at Cambridge Innovation Center, a life sciences co-working space at 36th and Market, works from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then swaps with her husband, who works noon to 9 p.m., caring for their infant son.

Guzik, 32, took advantage of Cambridge’s flexible work offering. She returned to work early from maternity leave in January, 10 weeks after giving birth, for half days. Despite having a C-section, she returned sooner than her full 18 weeks of leave, calling the option “a lifesaver.”

In partnership with BioLabs at CIC, “we have a team of scientists here, plus we offer co-working space for start-ups. Our benefits are so great,” Guzik said. “I wouldn’t have gotten through without the support of the company.”

Cambridge also set up remote classrooms, “so if you had a child out of school, you could bring your kids,” she said.

Richards, Layton & Finger lawyers were told not to worry about submitting work until evenings after they helped children with homework.

The firm didn’t cut billable hours, Damon said, but “we’ve identified periods of time as flex time to deal with what you have to do. Those are things we should focus on.”

Now in year two, “it’s even harder. Our people still aren’t clear when we’re getting out of this. We’ve hit the mark of exhaustion. The longer it draws out, the more support people need.”

Answers? Virtual doctors, telehealth visits with a physician; emergency babysitters and child care, taking kids to the office during a client meeting or a court hearing.

“This year, the stress is just pushing some women to drop out,” Damon said. “It’s too much. They have to step away for a while.”

Outside the United States, companies in Europe and South America are structuring shorter work days and job sharing. Some families have tried moving to child-care-friendly cities or even more accommodating countries such as France.

The PwC accounting, tax, and consulting firm has doubled its child-care reimbursement and now offers remote tutoring assistance “to reduce stress and concerns parents have,” said Philadelphia office managing partner Deanna Byrne.

However, the U.S. lacks national standards on paid family or sick leave, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“The current system is a patchwork of policies determined by employers, state and local laws, or negotiated through labor contracts,” the foundation said in a December 2020 report.

President Joe Biden’s newly passed stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, specifically supported families with young children and child-care providers.

It includes $14 billion in emergency block grants, mainly for child care for frontline and emergency workers, $24 billion to help struggling providers meet payroll and rent, and $1 billion for Head Start programs.

Tchen called the package “great news, as it is really needed as emergency relief. But it isn’t the full investment that is needed to build the caregiving infrastructure — including child care — that our country needs.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.