What would happen to labor markets if child
care didn’t exist? What would the work force
look like if schools didn’t watch over children
Monday through Friday?
We now know.
As COVID-19 forced the closure of day care facilities
and schools across the nation, parents became full-time caregivers.
And the impact on their work lives was enormous.
Exactly how this played out, and especially how it affected gender balance
in labor markets, is the focus of new research by Misty Heggeness, a
U.S. Census Bureau economist and former visiting scholar at the Opportunity
& Inclusive Growth Institute.
By comparing employment patterns in states that closed early with
those in states that closed later, she analyzes how parents’ labor supply
shifted in response to the COVID-19 shock. Did they leave their jobs
altogether, take temporary leave, or devise other mechanisms to cope
with increased child care responsibilities? Did the closings affect mothers
and fathers differently?
In terms of reported workforce attachment
and unemployment, Heggeness finds
no immediately measurable impact. In the
very short term, parents didn’t leave the
labor force entirely and they weren’t fired.
But the workforce definitely changed. Many
parents took leave from their jobs. Not
fathers though; just mothers with schoolage
children. Fathers, for their part, cut back
slightly on working hours.
While stressing that these are shortterm
results and that labor markets will no
doubt adjust over time, Heggeness speaks
emphatically about both short- and longrun
impacts these immediate changes are
likely to have.
Balancing work with increased household
responsibilities, she points out, may
increase stress, reduce sleep and leisure,
and potentially harm job productivity. In the
long term, it may also impair job prospects
for both mothers and fathers.
Her findings indicate that mothers have
borne the greater burden compared with
both fathers and other women, and she
concludes that “a gender-equal labor market
will never be fully realized unless we
acknowledge the double bind of mothers
and [their] dual responsibilities.”
Detailed model, deep data
Heggeness starts with a standard household
model but incorporates the realities of
parental bargaining over resources, including
time, and inequality between spouses.
Beyond that, her model incorporates pandemic reality: school closures, business
shutdowns, stay-at-home ordinances.
In normal times, parents may pay for
child care if it’s less expensive than what
the parent can earn at his or her job. In
pandemic times, that’s not an option.
Time spent in unpaid child care ramps
up to 24/7—meaning less paid labor and
less leisure. “Juggling it all,” she writes.
Her data set, drawn from monthly
panel data from the Current Population
Survey, covers the first five months
of both 2019 and 2020 and follows the
same individuals over time. The final
sample is devoted to parents of schoolage
children, including about 176,000
observations from nearly 63,000 parents.
Moms (not dads) took leave
To focus on the COVID-19 shock’s impact
on labor patterns, Heggeness compares
workers in 18 states that closed schools
early, defined as on or before the week
including March 12, with those closing
the following week or later (33 states).
She looks at six variables to gauge labor
force attachment, and amount and value
of labor provided.
Heggeness’ empirical analysis measures
the change in weekly earnings
and other labor variables that is due
exclusively to closure of child care centers
and schools, isolated statistically
from simultaneous changes occurring
in all states and pre-existing differences
“A gender-equal labor market
will never be fully realized unless we acknowledge the double bind of mothers and [their] dual responsibilities.”
The results are unambiguous. In the
very short term, the COVID-19 shock
had no impact on employment or
attachment to labor force. Nonetheless,
parents with jobs had to make serious
adjustments to cope with school and
child care closures.
First and foremost, many mothers
took immediate leave from their jobs.
“Mothers with jobs in early closure
states were 68.8 percent more likely
than mothers in late closure states to
have a job but not be working,” Heggeness
finds. There was no such difference
for fathers, nor for women without
How did fathers adjust? They
worked a bit less, reducing weekly
hours by about 1.3 percent (about half
an hour per 40-hour work week), compared
with fathers in late closure states.
Unlike mothers, however, they didn’t
take work leave.
Surprisingly, household earnings
didn’t decline, suggesting that mothers
took paid leave, and fathers who
worked shorter hours were salaried or
able to work remotely.
Implications for parents’ careers
What does this mean for employees, for
companies, for the economy in general?
And what does it signify for families—
MISTY HEGGENESS, Principal
U.S. Census Bureau
It’s clear that school and child care
closures affect mothers more than other women, and mothers more than
fathers, reflecting gender imbalance
within households in both bargaining
power and child-rearing roles. Social
norms and expectations also play a role,
observes Heggeness. “It is more socially
acceptable for mothers in the workplace
to take leave for family obligations, but
less so for fathers.”
For both parents, balancing additional
household responsibilities with
work can create short-term problems:
increasing stress, reducing sleep and
leisure time, and impairing productivity
on the job.
The long-term implications are also
worrisome, leaving both parents “vulnerable
to career scarring,” she writes. “When
mothers must take leave for childcare
purposes … it has detrimental effects on
opportunities for career advancement.
… When fathers’ hours are reduced, it
leaves them [similarly] vulnerable.”
But while both parents adjust work
hours, Heggeness notes that taking leave
from work is more drastic than working
a bit less, indicating that the work-home
time constraint is more binding for
mothers. “The dual responsibilities of
household production and formal labor
market activities … are disproportionately
distributed toward women, particularly
mothers,” she writes. “We need to
prioritize discussions of child care.”