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Jobs or kids? Parenting during the pandemic

When schools closed and child care shut down, moms and dads took different paths at work

July 8, 2020

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Jake MacDonald/Minneapolis Fed

Article Highlights

  • Parental work patterns were transformed by school and child care closings
  • Mothers tended to take leave, or increase hours. Fathers decreased hours
  • To ensure full employment and gender equality, weekday child care is essential
Jobs or kids? Parenting during the pandemic

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 “Why Is Mommy So Stressed?,” new research by Misty Heggeness, a U.S. Census Bureau economist and 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 analyzed 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?

When day care and schools shut down, many employees took leave. Not fathers though; just mothers with school-age children. … Mothers who stayed on the job increased their working hours.

In terms of reported job attachment and unemployment, Heggeness found no immediately measurable impact. Parents didn’t quit or reduce hours, and they weren’t fired, at least not in the very short term. But the workforce definitely changed: When day care and schools shut down, many employees took leave. Not fathers though; just mothers with school-age children.

“Mothers who maintained jobs in early closure states were 53.2 percent more likely not to be working than mothers in late closure states,” she writes. But there was no significant difference for fathers. In other words, many mothers in states that closed early took temporary leave from their jobs so they could take care of their children, now out of school.

And, ironically, mothers who stayed on the job increased their working hours by 1.0 percent, while fathers decreased theirs by 1.4 percent. In sum, early closures caused mothers to increase their work hours by 2.4 percent compared with fathers. Perhaps, Heggeness observes, mothers did so to compensate for lost wages from other household members due to business closures.

Mothers’ career development will likely suffer if they separate from their jobs. … And those who work longer hours but still care for children will be overburdened, stressed, and less productive.

While stressing that these are short-term results and that labor markets will no doubt adjust over time, Heggeness speaks emphatically about the impact these immediate trends are likely to have on mothers, and women more generally.

Mothers’ career development will likely suffer if they separate from their jobs, even short-term, she observes. And those who work longer hours but still care for children will be overburdened, stressed, and less productive. “We need to prioritize discussions of child care,” she writes. “The dual responsibilities of household production and formal labor market activities … are disproportionately distributed toward women, particularly mothers.”

Detailed model, deep data

To arrive at these findings in her Institute working paper “Why Is Mommy So Stressed?,” Heggeness starts with a standard household model. Families maximize household utility that includes parent and child time (at work, at school, caring for others, home chores, leisure, and sleeping), as well as consumption of goods enabled by wages from work, minus expenses that might include paid child care. In normal times, she notes, parents may pay for child care if it’s less expensive than what the parent can earn at their job. In pandemic times, that’s not an option.

But her analysis goes past the standard model to incorporate the realities of parental bargaining over resources, including time, and inequality between spouses. Beyond that, it incorporates pandemic reality: school closures, business shutdowns, stay-at-home ordinances. Time spent in unpaid child care ramps up to 24/7—meaning less paid labor, lower quality labor, less leisure, fewer hours of sleep, more stress, and combinations thereof. “Juggling it all,” she writes.

A model needs data, of course. Heggeness draws monthly panel data from the Current Population Survey. The CPS asks detailed questions about economic activity, education, and demographics of about 60,000 households nationwide every year, combining in-person and phone interviews. Her panel data cover the first five months of both 2019 and 2020 and follow the same individuals over time, and her final sample is devoted to parents of school-age children, including about 270,000 observations from over 95,000 parents.

Analysis and findings

To focus on the COVID-19 shock’s impact on labor patterns, Heggeness compares workers in states that closed schools early, defined as on or before the week including March 12, with those closing the following week or later. She looks at six variables to gauge labor force attachment and amount and value of labor provided (not in labor force, unemployed, employed but not working, hours worked, weekly earnings, and hourly wage).

She uses a statistical technique—difference-in-difference (DID) estimation—that enables her to measure causality under real-world conditions. In this instance, DID is used to measure 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 among them.

The results are unambiguous. In the short term, the COVID-19 shock had no impact on employment or attachment to labor forces. But workers did adjust to school and child care closures. To cope, many mothers took immediate leave from their jobs. Men did not, nor did women without school-age children. And mothers who stayed on the job worked even more hours, while fathers worked fewer.

Implications

What does this mean for employees, for companies, for the economy in general? And what does it signify for families—mothers especially?

It’s clear that school and child care closures affect mothers more than other women, and mothers more than fathers. To address added responsibility at home, mothers either take leave from work or somehow manage both increased home duties and longer working hours.

“A gender-equal labor market will never be fully realized unless we acknowledge the double bind of mothers and [their] dual responsibilities.”

Neither strategy benefits them. “Either path can induce stress, decrease future career opportunities or advancements, or both,” Heggeness observes. “Temporarily taking time off work or increasing work hours in the formal labor market while balancing increased household chores and activities have the potential to decrease quality of work and future career advancement.” Over time, these forces are likely to increase the gender wage gap as well as gender inequalities at work.

The irony, she notes, is that this is occurring despite decades of apparent improvement in women’s rights, wage equality, and labor force participation. “It is not enough to strive for gender equality in corporate boards and among workforce management,” she writes. Her results on labor force dynamics during the pandemic demonstrate that mothers can’t fully participate in the economy without affordable child care and strong school infrastructure.

“A gender-equal labor market will never be fully realized,” she concludes, “unless we acknowledge the double bind of mothers and [their] dual responsibilities.” The implications are wider than just for families and employers and go well beyond the pandemic. Adequate support for the child care needs of working parents is crucial to the Fed’s full employment mandate.

Douglas Clement
Managing Editor

Douglas Clement is a managing editor at the Minneapolis Fed, where he writes about research conducted by economists and other scholars associated with the Minneapolis Fed and interviews prominent economists.