Last September, as a mostly distant school year began, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce. That’s four times the number of men who left, according to the National Center for Women’s Rights.
This tendency for women to disproportionately quit their jobs has been constant throughout the pandemic. Today, as a new school year begins and the delta variant spreads, uncertainty about the future of working mothers grows again.
In March, ‘Marketplace’ host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Lauren Pyle and Kelli LaFont about how the pandemic has affected their working lives. He came back with them to see how things were going. Pyle works in social services and lives in San Antonio with her husband and their 8-year-old daughter. LaFont is an employment specialist living in Fayetteville, Tennessee, with her husband and their 2 year old son. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Lauren, I’ll start with you. And I want to remind people of what you went through and what was going on. You only had a few months to move to Texas. Your husband has a new job. You were a stay-at-home mom looking for a job. How have the last six months been?
Lauren Pyle: Yeah. So I ended up finding a job, doing the exact same thing I did before. And I just started, like, two weeks ago.
Ryssdal: Well, congratulations. How long did it take you to find a job?
Pyle: OK, so from the first time I applied to this particular organization until I started work, I think it’s been about six months. Yes.
Ryssdal: It’s a long time without having a –
Pyle: It has been a long time. Yeah. You know, I was applying for other higher level jobs that I thought I had qualifications for. But in this organization, you know, you really have to start at the bottom and work your way up. And [I’m] happy to do that, just, yeah, here I am.
Ryssdal: Good. Kelly, what about you? It was a little different for you last time. If I remember correctly, you were thinking about quitting your job. There were child care issues, closures and all that. Give us the update.
Kelli LaFont: Well, I didn’t have to quit my job. Fortunately. We have moved to a new daycare, and the daycare has much better policies. We have not had any major shutdowns or extended leave. And I was able to stay at my job.
Who does the most child care at home?
Ryssdal: Its good. But let me ask you, and look, it comes in, you know, your household life, but who does most of the babysitting, you or your husband?
LaFont: We have a pretty good balance. If my son is sick, usually I have to take off. He makes more money than I do, so his job is more important – our jobs are just as important, I like to say. But my job has been the most flexible, so I end up taking on a lot of babysitting.
Ryssdal: Lauren, what about you and the gap between what your husband ends up doing and what you end up doing?
Pyle: Yes. So it’s funny, because he ended up getting, you know, a huge pay raise when he started his new job. And I took a huge pay cut. I think I took a pay cut of around 25% or 30% to start this new job. So in our household finances, you know, we’re always at a net positive, but me personally, I’m way behind now than I would rather be. But you know, like I said in my last interview, you know, I do what I love. I am at the service of people. It’s like that.
Ryssdal: It was, and look, we talked about it last time. It’s been a year and a half difficult for everyone, harder for women and even harder for moms. And I wonder, Kelly, you first, if you still feel that way.
“IIt’s stressful to balance all of this “
LaFont: I would say yes. I mean, you know, with the increase in cases it’s a little stressful. Like, what if my son gets sick? What if I make my son sick but work? I like my job. I don’t want to quit my job. But it is stressful to balance everything.
Ryssdal: Lauren, how about you? Stress level?
Pyle: Um, that was pretty high when the school year started. Those early days were really nerve-racking. You know, our governor banned school warrants for masks. So I trust that, you know, even if she understands, you know, we’ll do our best, and she’ll be fine. Fortunately, our district now demands them. They go against [Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott’s decree. But that seems to change from day to day, week to week. So who knows where we’ll be in a week?
Ryssdal: Do you think, Lauren, that, I mean, I’m sure you remember that, but six or eight months ago, when women were leaving the workforce by the hundreds of thousands, that was the conversation on the labor market. It was “What is this pandemic doing to women?” And I wonder if you think people are still paying attention to this problem.
Loss of wealth
Pyle: I do not know. I feel like people are really focused on all the other stuff like we should be, you know. We can’t be determined, but I don’t know if the conversations are really going on about all this loss of wealth as well. Because I mean, I went eight or nine months without contributing to my retirement as well. We didn’t really make any student loan repayments because we only had one income. Like all of these losses, I don’t know how long it will take to recover this.
Ryssdal: I’m sure you’ve both thought about it. What if in your job, at school, or at your husband’s job, someone is exposed? Have you thought about that, Lauren?
Pyle: Yeah. We have therefore not yet discussed the matter with my employer. I guess I will learn this information in the coming weeks or when it happens. So obviously I’m the one who’s going to stay home, and it’s just, it hurts because I’m doing a really important job that people need. My husband, I still love you, he is not. So when, if and when my daughter is exposed or one of us gets sick or whatever, you know, it’s never a question. I earn a lot less than him. We cannot afford to have him take unpaid leave. It’s just gonna be me.
Ryssdal: Kelli, I guess it’s the same for you.
LaFont: He is. And we both work in areas where we could be exposed quite easily. My husband works in health care, so he is in hospitals. We are both vaccinated. But here, people have acted as if the pandemic is over. So I’m afraid it’s not a question of whether we’ll be exposed, but when. So that would be back to where we were last year, where I was going to balance work with a toddler who would have to be away for 14 days, I think those are the daycare rules. It’s stressful to think about it.