Serena Wills starts her day by helping her son log on to his virtual classroom. She spends the next eight hours making sure he keeps the video camera on at all times and stays focused when he attends small group teaching sessions for students with learning disabilities.
Since she lost her job managing invoices as an administrative assistant, Wills has devoted her days to making sure her child is safe and healthy. She feeds him, helps him learn and, when the holiday season began, she asked friends and family to buy him Christmas gifts because she couldn't afford all the things on his list this year.
“I feel like I’m the lunch lady and the IT support and the guidance counselor,” Wills, 45, said.
Wills’ transition from the workplace to her son’s side represents an alarming trend among Black and Latina moms since the pandemic started.
Since March, Black and Latina moms have stopped working, either voluntarily or due to layoffs, at higher rates than white moms. Many are single moms who need childcare but can’t access it during the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, single moms had higher rates of unemployment than their childless counterparts in the second and third quarters of 2020.
The COVID-19 recession has affected groups in different ways. Black moms have been more likely than Latina moms and white moms to quit their jobs. Higher rates of layoffs affected immigrant moms most severely in 2020. Meanwhile, Latina moms were more likely to be laid off than white and Black moms. This is in part because Latinas were more likely to work face-to-face service positions, such as in restaurants and hotels.
Experts forecast that loss of skills, tenure and income among women of color will shape the U.S. economy for years to come by making it more difficult for moms of color to re-enter the workforce, earn the same amount as their white counterparts and reach supervisor and management positions.
Jennifer Jimenez, 28, was laid off from her job as a security guard at the Houston Rodeo in March.
Black mothers are more vulnerable to layoffs
Wills sensed that her job security might be starting to crumble before COVID-19 hit, when her long-time supervisor resigned from the condo association where they worked in Alexandria, Virginia. Since that supervisor had brought her on full-time a month earlier, Wills guessed she’d be one of the first out the door when layoffs arrived.
As the pandemic spread across the nation, Wills asked in June if she could work from home because she had health conditions that made her vulnerable to COVID-19. Her supervisor told her she had been let go.
By then, Wills was already suffering from the lingering effects of Lyme disease. Two months before she was laid off, she went to the emergency room suffering from fatigue, shortness of breath, joint pain and dizziness.
She knew it wasn’t COVID-19.
Stress – the stress of her demanding job, stress regarding her son’s school shutting down, and stress caused by the invisible and deadly presence of the novel coronavirus – had caused Wills’ lingering symptoms from a previous bout of Lyme disease to flare up, worse than they had in years. To further complicate matters, the laundry list of symptoms caused by her syndrome makes her high-risk for COVID-19.
The condo association let her go without a severance package. She received only $300 from unused vacation time.
Without her paycheck coming in, Wills began receiving rent relief from a faith-based community organization. She received child support from Jordan’s dad in New York, but her savings were depleted.
Now, her days revolve around her son’s needs.
Before the pandemic, her son ate breakfast at school with his friends, attended aftercare and took swimming lessons. Since his mom became one of hundreds of thousands of Black mothers impacted by layoffs, it’s been just the two of them in their one-bedroom apartment.
“I have to keep my health all the way up, because I’m it – I’m everything for my son,” Wills said.
For moms like Wills, there isn’t a real option during the pandemic when it comes to choosing between work and kids. Even if she weren’t laid off, Wills may have had to sacrifice her job for Jordan’s sake to watch over him and help him with school.
As it was, some of the other moms in their apartment complex were concerned about Wills working in-person from March through June. They worried her family would pass the coronavirus to their kids, because they would sometimes look after Jordan.
Larhonda Stewart reads to her two children, Zorah (left) and Anissa in their Washington, D.C. apartment.
Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University in California who wrote the book “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” calls the economic recession a “she-session” because it’s disproportionately affecting women.
“It was difficult before, and it’s a crisis now. Moms are doing more of the increase in care work,” she said.
During the pandemic, mothers were more likely than fathers to reduce hours and leave the workforce altogether to take care of kids who are home. Experts attribute this to the fact that, even though women make up almost exactly half of the American workforce, they still only earn 82% of what men do. Among women, women of color earn less than white women, with Latinas being the lowest-paid group.
The wage gap can lead families to de-prioritize the career of the mother, said Cooper.
“This is a long-term emergency that families are living through and women are the shock absorbers for it,” Cooper said.
Latinas hit hard by COVID-19 recession
For Jennifer Jimenez, 28, who was laid off from her job as a security guard at the Houston Rodeo in March, going back to work hasn’t been an option. She has four kids ranging in age from 1 to 11 years old. And she’s a single mom.
Jimenez has been receiving SNAP benefits since August and was able to get unemployment relief until October.
“I really can’t work because I have my kids,” she said.
Starting in June, Jimenez started selling T-shirts and sweaters on a website she created. It’s been the only source of income for her family, and was bringing in $200 per week from July to October.
That wasn't enough to help Jimenez with her car payments. This month, she had to borrow $1,000 from a friend to keep from having her car repossessed.
She said she doesn’t have savings and doesn’t have a back-up financial plan. The only job she can see herself doing in the near future is working part-time as an Uber Eats deliverer or driving to make deliveries for Favor, another food app. She needs the flexibility to be with her kids, she said.
Right after Thanksgiving, Jimenez tested positive for COVID-19. Her 10-year-old daughter Jasleen tested positive, too.
When their tests came back, Jimenez was astounded. She hadn’t mentally prepared for the possibility that someone in her family would catch the virus.
She said she felt paralyzed and powerless. She waited days before telling her children their family was now directly touched by the virus and that the test results had returned positive.
Her kids had been going to school in-person, at a public school in Houston. But that one sense of normalcy and routine came to a shuddering halt with their decision to quarantine in the family’s two-bedroom apartment.
Jimenez lost her sense of taste and smell. Her daughter Jasleen didn’t show symptoms.
“We live in a world where one day you’re OK and one day you’re not,” Jimenez said.
Latina moms have been particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 recession in part because they are more likely to work as temps or in other seemingly flexible positions where they’re in and out of the workforce, said Felipe Dias, a sociology professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts who studies inequality.
His research shows that from the pre-pandemic period to the post-pandemic period in April, the number of working Latina moms fell by 23%. Some have since recovered, Dias found. Through October, Latina moms regained 60% of those lost work opportunities.
Child care providers limit hours, forcing moms to give up work
Larhonda Stewart, 28, had to turn down work after her child care provider reduced service hours because of the pandemic. The in-home nurse assistant in Washington, D.C., has two daughters: a 7-year-old and a 6-month-old.
Now, Stewart drops off the youngest, Anissa, at the Bright Beginnings center at 8 a.m. She has to pick her up again by around 3:30 p.m. because the center cut back hours to allow the moms who work there to take care of their kids. Most of the staff are Black and brown women, according to the center’s executive director.
Stewart’s 7-year-old daughter, Zorah, attends a private school and is doing virtual learning at home and often needs help from her mom. Sometimes the internet doesn’t work.
The demands of childcare meant that Stewart soon found herself telling her supervisor she couldn’t work nights or weekends. Soon, she was working 50% fewer hours than she was before the pandemic. In October, she couldn’t get any work shifts.
Stewart wishes she didn’t have to work at all. She needs to help her daughter with school. And she worries that her job is putting her and her family at risk of getting the coronavirus. Stewart said that PPE shortages have meant she and other nursing assistants have been left to piece together their own masks, gloves and other supplies.
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