Moms Wrestle to Return to Work as California Reopens from COVID

Wendy al-Mukdad speaks to her son Yazan while he has a quick meal before his baseball practice in San Bruno. Photo by Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

Before the pandemic, Patricia Gutierrez took her 8-year-old autistic son to school in San Jose and her 4-year-old son to daycare every morning. After her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, was picked up and taken to a senior citizens’ center, Gutierrez drove to work as a state-approved professional nurse at a special school.

But when COVID-19 cases spread across California in March and stores began to close, her son’s school, senior citizen center and daycare center all closed. Gutierrez lost her job and registered as unemployed. With two children and a departing mother at home, finding other work was not an option.

“There was no way,” she said.

Now that California is opening up again, people are re-entering the workforce. But for mothers like Gutierrez, the economic recovery may not kick in until August, when school returns. In May, employment of working women without children had returned to pre-pandemic levels, while mothers with school-age children lagged more than 6%, according to an independent analysis by Misty L. Heggeness, a senior economist at the U.S. Census Office.

There is a similar imbalance between men and women. Gema Zamarro, Senior Economist at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, found that women who live with a partner are twice as likely to be unemployed as men who live with a partner in November.

That’s because pandemic shutdowns had a disproportionate impact on working mothers, experts say. Christine Beckman, Professor of Public Order at the University of Southern California, points out the “scaffolding” needed to raise children: support from grandparents and friends, afternoon programs and exercise, day care and school. When the pandemic broke out, “The whole infrastructure, I mean, it literally disappeared overnight,” she said.

Women largely took up the gap. Between May and October 2020, the number of working mothers solely responsible for childcare rose from 33% to 45%, while the number of men solely responsible for childcare remained at around 10% according to the Zamarro study.

“It was pretty shocking for families to realize that only the people inside their walls had to make it work,” Beckman said, and “by the time they can put that back up, it’s really hard to get it back on Bring job. ”

Gutierrez’s mother had moved in with Gutierrez’s sister in Hawaii last October, and Gutierrez’s daughter was born. Gutierrez spent the days separating her two elders when they argued, reassuring her autistic son when he was having tantrums, and barely falling asleep with her nursing newborn.

“Nobody could come and see me and the church closed,” she said, “I just got more nervous.” Sometimes she woke up in a panic.

Gutierrez is better now. Her oldest is in summer school for three hours a day and she looks after her two youngest at home. The daycare she relied on went out of business during the pandemic and with the continued weight of childcare she will not be returning to her previous job or looking for a new one until the school opens.

“Summers have always been stressful for working parents,” Beckman said, but this summer many camps have been canceled or reduced capacity, childcare costs have increased during the pandemic, and summer schools in the Bay Area are already full. “I think the families are going to hobble through this until we operate on some of the big things like dropping school,” said Beckman. “I don’t see anything getting any better in the summer.”

Wendy al-Mukdad, a San Bruno mother who works as a senior utilities engineer for the California Public Utilities Commission and primarily evaluates efforts to contain forest fires, told her boss in April 2020 that she was temporarily back to work four hours a day . Her son lagged behind in school and al-Mukdad helped him catch up with him by teaching him six hours a day.

In the fall of 2020, al-Mukdad opened her house during the day to two friends of her son, whose mothers were still working personally and had difficulties helping their children at school. Al-Mukdad, who is back to work full-time, wrote the timetables for all three boys on a large blackboard and set an alarm clock for five minutes before each class. If the alarm went off while she was in a meeting or giving a presentation, she would apologize to get the guys ready. To keep up, al-Mukdad worked until 10 p.m. and on weekends.

Still, al-Mukdad said, “I know that so many people did not have the ability to do what I did.”

In January, when the work kept clashing with the boys’ food, tutoring and concentration, al-Mukdad decided to take six months of vacation time in part to support the children all day. She will be back to work when school resumes in August.

Beckman had hoped that COVID-19 would put the spotlight on the gender imbalance in home childcare. “It didn’t,” she said. “The data really showed that women still worked twice as much as men at home.

“If the pandemic hadn’t made us rethink these gender roles and gender expectations for housework,” Beckman said, “I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company dedicated to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters. This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration of newsrooms studying income inequality and economic survival in California.

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