Instead of tending to clients in her job as a full-time hairdresser outside of Seattle, Washington, Bailey Witwer finds herself sitting at a table with her three school-age children guiding them through their online school classes. Jordan Humm recently quit her job as a ministry associate so she can oversee virtual preschool for her son and take care of her two-year-old. As for Colleen Bradley, who was recently laid off by a health care events company, helping her third-grader with virtual school leaves little time to hunt for a job.
They’re hardly alone. Many working parents around the U.S. are having to dial back on work or even quit their jobs to look after their children while many schools and day care centers remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It just became apparent to me I needed to step back because I was not going to be able to continue to work the amount that was expected of me at least when I got hired,” Humm, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, told CBS MoneyWatch.
Research from the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve shows that nearly one in five working-age adults aren’t working because COVID-19 disrupted their childcare arrangements. Within this group, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working because of their parental responsibilities.
Research from hedge fund Brevan Howard also found that more than 4 million U.S. workers who can’t do their jobs from home could end up having to leave the workforce this fall to help their kids with distance learning, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
Humm’s decision to stop working also reflects other stark common realities: Childcare responsibilities disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women, many of whom are foregoing their own careers, often because their male partners earn more.
In dual‐earner, heterosexual married couples with children, between February and April mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers, a recent report published in the journal Gender, Work & Organization found.
In Humm’s case, deciding which parent would take on the expanded caretaking duties was simple, she said. In her view, it didn’t make sense for her husband Ryan to turn down work as a cinematographer and director to stay home with the kids just so she could earn $20 an hour working for the church. Before the pandemic, she earned $800 a month working 20 hours a week as a ministry associate. Her husband makes $4,000 a month as a freelancer.
“My husband makes more, so if one of us was going to quit, it was a no-brainer it was going to me,” Humm said.
Witwer, the hairdresser, who specializes in fantasy hair colors — think rainbow hues — and cuts, also reduced her hours so she could be her homebound kids’ default caregiver, while allowing her husband to continue working full-time.
While Witwer made $60,000 working full-time last year, her husband earns roughly $180,000 a year as a database administrator for an insurance company. And without his six-figure salary, the Witwers wouldn’t be able to afford their house.
Witwer still works when she can, booking appointments two days a week in the afternoons and evenings and on Sundays. She expects to earn between $23,000 and $30,000 this year. But the hit to her income matters less than the risk of her career stalling, she said.
“I am absolutely concerned about the effect scaling back my hours will have on my career. The technology and chemistry is constantly evolving, and it takes a lot of time to keep on top of it,” Witwer said. “Without the ability to do that in a timely fashion, with not all of my mind present, I will slip back.”
Other parents worry that taking a career hiatus now could hold them back professionally for years to come. Bradley, who in March was laid off by World Congress, a health care events company, is considering her job options now that she’s steering her third-grade son’s studies online. She is with him all day, while her husband works at a college.
“I have been looking for a job but it’s virtually impossible with online school — you have to check in on them every 15 minutes and make sure they are really on in the virtual classroom,” Bradley said.
Re-entering the workforce will only get harder as remote schooling continues, Bradley believes, and so she’s considering starting her own digital marketing business in hopes that it will afford her the flexibility she needs.
“As I look for jobs, I apply and then I think, ‘How could I even do this job? I can’t count on my son really being in school and having that week off,'” she said.
Even if quitting seems like the best alternative, experts suggest that leaving the workforce should be a last resort. For a 30-year-old parent who earns $50,000 a year, spending a single year on the sidelines adds up to a loss of more than $156,000 in lifetime pay, including a reduction in retirement benefits and wage growth, according to a calculator from the Center For American Progress.
“In the short term it looks good, but in the long term it may turn out to be the wrong thing to do,” said labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci.