The Impact of COVID-19 on Utah Women and Work: Caregiver Experiences

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21 has affected workers across the globe, and women in the workforce have been disproportionately impacted, including those who live in Utah. The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah reported that from 2019 to 2020, jobs held by women declined at a rate more than double that of men, and unemployment rose more for females than males. One major reason for these discrepancies is likely the disproportionate burden women have carried for childcare and homeschooling children as daycare facilities and schools have been closed in efforts to curb the spread of the virus. In fact, one national report stated that mothers in dual-income households were three times more likely than fathers to bear the main responsibility for most of the housework and childcare. 

This brief is the fourth in a six-part series on the impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and work. It expands upon the quantitative findings from the third brief (“No. 33: Childcare and Homeschooling”). In this brief, we focus on qualitative findings regarding care work experiences—including caring for people other than one’s own children, such as grandchildren, older relatives, other family members, and those providing care in the childcare industry—during the pandemic more broadly and shares findings from open-ended questions that were not childcare or care work specific, meaning these issues emerged from broader, more generalized questions.

Impacts on Working Mothers

Overall, working women with children of all ages faced challenges during the pandemic. When schools were closed for in-person learning, mothers felt pressure to ensure their children were engaged and caught up with their schoolwork while also trying to be productive employees. Younger children who required more supervision made it even harder to maintain work-life boundaries. Despite the child’s age, however, respondents fit work hours late into the night and reported having little to no downtime as they were either working for pay, caring for their children, or doing housework. In this section, five primary themes emerged around the impacts of the pandemic on mothers: the struggle to juggle, workplace support, spousal support, guilt, and unique impacts on single mothers. 

The Struggle to Juggle

Overall, between working whenever they could, being interrupted, putting in extra hours, becoming full-time entertainers and coaches for their children, experiencing burnout, and navigating the mental and physical health of their children, thousands of Utah mothers experienced the “struggle to juggle” in ways that negatively impacted their work and home lives. 

Guilt

It was apparent that adequately meeting everyone’s needs felt impossible to respondents, and in trying to do so, they ignored their own personal needs. For instance, one mother explained, “I find myself feeling guilt for not working as much as I should or for working too much and not being as present with my kids. It’s hard to find a balance, and it can be especially hard to find any extra time to for my own mental/ physical health.” 

Spousal Support

Supportive Spouse: Even when women described having a supportive spouse, the increased responsibility for parents during the pandemic was overwhelming for many respondents. For example, one woman stated, “I have kids in high school, middle school, and elementary school. Trying to keep them on task and grades up while trying to do college myself has been a challenge. Yet, I have been one of the blessed ones to have kids and a husband to support and help out.” 

Unsupportive Spouse: Hundreds of respondents discussed spouses who did not provide support at home, and these women often mentioned how additional caregiving and home responsibilities during the pandemic typically fell on women more generally. This included managing schoolwork, schedules, and general household tasks. In some cases, husbands had similar work responsibilities and capabilities to those of the mother, and in other cases, the spouse was unable to help due to their job.  

Workplace Support

Supportive Employers: Many women who completed this survey felt supported by their direct supervisors or managers. For example, one respondent stated, “My boss and his boss are very involved fathers, and I never felt any kind of extra pressure or that they were unhappy with my performance. They understood. If I had a sexist boss, this could have had such a different outcome.” 

Unsupportive Employers: Hundreds of women discovered that their employers were particularly unsupportive during the pandemic. For example, one respondent explained, “If anything, this pandemic truly showed me who I work for, and I no longer feel as passionate about being loyal and working as hard as I did before March.” Another said, “When we returned to work, my employer made no allowances for me. I was required to work more than twice as many hours as before the pandemic. I had to tell my kids’ teachers that they would not be doing their schoolwork because my husband and I had to work full-time.”  Although some of these challenges were caused by individual bosses, negative treatment from male co-workers was also mentioned, particularly focusing on men who did not understand the emotional and physical load of unpaid care work.

Single Mothers

With less support and fewer options, single mothers were forced to manage the additional responsibilities already described. “I’m a single mom with two young school-age kids. It is incredibly difficult to balance work and family demands. At least once or twice a week, I feel like I just can’t do both anymore. But that’s just not an option for me. I love my kids and I love my job. I’ve moved forward as best I can, but I’ve felt burned out for a long time, and I feel like my sleep and mental health have suffered. I have more anxiety, and I often find myself feeling like there’s just too much for one person. I sympathize with women who have quit. I would if it could.” 

Childcare Challenges

While federal funding existed during the pandemic to help childcare providers remain open, there was still a myriad of reasons why parents lost access to childcare during the pandemic and childcare centers fared poorly. In some cases, childcare providers closed temporarily to implement safety guidelines, which included decreased childcare slots upon reopening. Some parents had safety concerns and decided to keep their children home while still paying for their unused childcare slot to secure the option. Others faced financial setbacks and could no longer afford childcare, so providers faced decreased enrollment and found it hard to retain staff. During the analysis of these data, two primary themes emerged: challenges accessing childcare, and challenges for the childcare industry and workforce.  

  1. Challenges Accessing Childcare: Many women found themselves scrambling to provide care for their own children while they were also trying to work. Despite the increased safety protocols, others did not feel safe sending their children to childcare with possible COVID-19 exposure. Overall, these circumstances created incredible stress for working mothers, where, in some cases, cutting back on work hours or even leaving the workforce was the only option they perceived to be available. 
  2. Challenges for the Childcare Industry and Workforce: The childcare workforce and industry in general experienced incredible uncertainty and upheaval. Providers described plummeting enrollment, increased safety protocols and costs, and a progressively unstable workforce. 

Caregiving Responsibilities Beyond Children

More than 19% of respondents who mentioned care work discussed other types of caregiving responsibilities beyond their own children. Many faced the stressful reality of caring for older, at-risk adults such as their own parents, while older respondents described caring for their grandchildren. For these respondents, having flexibility and an understanding workplace were as important as they were for mothers. In some cases, respondents were both mothers and caretakers of their parents, which meant much more strict rules about outside activities, which severely limited options for mothers with children of all ages. 

Recommendations and Conclusions

This research brief sheds light on the effects of COVID-19 on working women who have caretaking responsibilities. Due to the pandemic, Utah women in the labor force have dealt with many challenges that have impacted their experiences with paid work, and those struggles were magnified for mothers with children in the home and for single mothers in the labor force. 

Based on the findings of this research, there are important actions that can help with a more equitable recovery for Utah women in the workforce. First, if both parents are in the labor force, efforts can be made to equitably distribute unpaid care and housework labor among couples. This will help normalize care work and unpaid labor for both parents and lead to family-friendly policy requests from all employees. Second, employers can provide support and reasonable accommodations for their working parents, such as maintaining the flexible schedules and remote work options successfully utilized during the pandemic. This will encourage women to return to the workforce and provide not only positive social good, but a positive impact on business outcomes. Research has shown that empathetic and supportive policies both attract and retain employees; further, such policies increase employees’ psychological safety, organizational commitment, and productivity. Finally, Utah state and local governments can implement policies that support Utah’s mothers and future mothers in terms of childcare, flexible work arrangements, family leave policies, and career relaunching programs. The unpaid labor of Utah women benefits the state in compounding ways but prevents women and families from reaching their economic potential. The policy options listed above would ensure that parents can attain the future they choose for themselves and their families. 

As Utah leaders and residents do more to understand the challenges that Utah caregivers faced related to COVID-19, a more equitable recovery can be crafted. This will, in turn, strengthen our businesses, families, communities, and the state as a whole. 

To learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on Utah women and work, including caregiver experiences, read the full brief.

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September 2021 Newsletter

The September 2021 Newsletter for the Utah Women & Leadership Project highlights new resources released, editorials, and announcements about women's groups and partnerships.