A Summary of “Fed Listens 2021: Pandemic Recovery and the Role of Care Work”

On November 18, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco hosted a Fed Listens event focused on the role of care in supporting labor force participation and the economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laura Choi, Senior Vice President of Public Engagement at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, moderated the event. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President Mary Daly opened the event, which also included a research presentation on the labor market participation of parents during the pandemic and a panel discussion with leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Collectively, the panel examined the challenges and opportunities for strengthening the provision of care work in support of an inclusive economic recovery.

Speakers at the event included: Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau, Vice President of Macroeconomic Research, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Michael Olenick, President and CEO, Child Care Resource Center; Cheryl Miller, Executive Director, Oregon Home Care Commission; April Sims, Secretary Treasurer, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO; and Lilia Vergara, Director of Human Resources, Dr. Bronner’s.

Opening Remarks

San Francisco Fed President Mary Daly set the stage for the event. She noted that the pandemic showed the obvious need for dependent care to facilitate people getting back to work and recovering from the pandemic. Daly said that the closing of schools and lack of childcare and aftercare have especially affected Black and Hispanic mothers. She said that just because there is a low unemployment rate nationally does not mean anyone who wants a job can get one: in fact, Daly noted, dependent care is a huge factor limiting people’s job prospects. So it is not just about finding a job, but determining how to get it done if you have to juggle a family and other commitments.

Research Presentation

Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau, Vice President of Macroeconomic Research, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco presented his findings on parental participation in the U.S. labor market. He began by noting the decline in in-person spending (restaurants, hotels, etc.) by two-thirds as of April 2020, accompanied by layoffs or job losses for about 50% of people in the leisure and hospitality industries. He noted that not all jobs allowed for remote work and that hit women and communities of color hardest, since they are overrepresented in the industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic. In fact, the same communities have also taken on the responsibility for children and the elderly during the pandemic, Petrosky-Nadeau noted.

He said that, historically, men have been more impacted by job loss in previous economic downturns, but not the one caused by the pandemic. He shared that the gap between labor force participation rates of men and women has grown over time, meaning the labor recovery has been stronger for men than women. Drilling down further, Petrosky-Nadeau showed that the economic recovery also fell harder on mothers compared to fathers or people who did not have children: 18 months into the pandemic, Petrosky-Nadeau noted, the U.S. has seen fathers return to pre-COVID levels of participation in the labor market, whereas there were about 1.3 million fewer mothers in the labor market compared to pre-pandemic. And among those, the hardest hit are those mothers with a high school diploma or less. Mothers with a college education have returned to pre-pandemic levels of participation in the labor market. Further breaking down differences across demographic groups, 18 months into the pandemic, the participation gap between white and Black and Hispanic mothers that widened with the onset of COVID-19 remains the same, meaning the larger impact of the pandemic on mothers in communities of color has persisted to this day.

A major complicating factor, Petrosky-Nadeau said, was the quality of school openings across the country: if a school district didn’t open then parents of students had a harder time going back to work. This happened more in communities of color, which was coupled with limits on the availability daycare and other forms of child care, Petrosky-Nadeau said.

Another dynamic Petrosky-Nadeau spoke about was part-time versus full-time work. Petrosky-Nadeau said a disproportionate share of the labor force exits of mothers were women working part-time prior to the pandemic. Mothers often select part time work when children are of schooling age for the flexibility it affords in controlling their working hours. In fact, Petrosky-Nadeau showed evidence that more flexibility in scheduling working hours in general allowed mothers to remain in the labor force during the pandemic.

During the Q&A, Petrosky-Nadeau was asked about how single parents have been affected by the pandemic. Petrosky-Nadeau said that single parents saw fewer exits from the labor market because they already had in place means to juggle work and child care. He said that was not every single parent, but most single parents, and that the group as a whole fared better than others from the perspective of remaining in the labor force through the pandemic.

Panel Discussion

The panel discussion focused on the challenges and solutions to support working families, businesses and care providers in returning and staying employed as part of the ongoing economic recovery. Participants included: Michael Olenick, President and CEO, Child Care Resource Center; Cheryl Miller, Executive Director, Oregon Home Care Commission; April Sims, Secretary Treasurer, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO; and Lilia Vergara, Director of Human Resources, Dr. Bronner’s.

Michael Olenick, President and CEO, Child Care Resource Center gave an overview of the U.S. child care system, noting that it is very complicated. He said during the pandemic about 50% of the family child care programs closed down. However now 90% of the total family-run facilities have reopened, while 80% of center-based facilities are back to full opening. He said child care providers are paid low wages but that current efforts are afoot to change that, including recent collective bargaining rights signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. He said that child care has historically been undervalued in this country, and he connected this undervaluing and low pay to systemic racism impacting Black and Brown child care workers. He said, from an equity perspective, he is trying to let employees set their own schedules. That is challenging, however, because there are state labor laws employees need to observe.

Cheryl Miller, Executive Director, Oregon Home Care Commission gave an overview of her state agency and said a key takeaway from the pandemic is the view that home care workers are essential workers. She said this view included ensuring these workers had paid time off, virtual recertification for CPR and first aid, and vaccinations so they were able to do their work without burning out. She said her agency was created by ballot measure in 2000 and works to enforce collective bargaining rights for public employees. She said wages, training and benefits are the focus of her agency. As a result of the organization’s work, workers are earning more and saving more for retirement. The body also won holiday pay for workers and created opportunities to certification that increase overall salaries. She said equity for her organization means connecting with immigrants and refugees on an equal level, such as translating important documents into their native languages and forming training cohorts around those unique languages. She said she is also trying to ensure geographic diversity and equity, by looking for people of all ages across the state of Oregon to join the public workforce.

April Sims, Secretary Treasurer, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO outlined how her union’s workers navigated the pandemic. She emphasized that while child care is often viewed as a women’s issue, it is more accurately a worker’s issue. Her organization surveyed members in construction and manufacturing to find out how childcare is impacting their work. Two thirds of the respondents were men and 63% of respondents reported living in areas where there are few or no child care options. Sims said she views child care as an infrastructure issue and that more work needs to be done to offer sector workers higher wages at a lower cost to the consumer. She said many women are continuing to look for work-from-home options to ensure their children are taken care of. She noted that most child care workers are women, immigrants, or people of color, so changing the narrative to highlight these workers as professionals and increasing benefits, salary, and training can lift up entire communities. She characterized this as investing in infrastructure to ensure a holistic economic recovery.

Lilia Vergara, Director of Human Resources, Dr. Bronner’s discussed her company’s experience during the pandemic, including ramping up to meet increased consumer demand for soap and hand sanitizer as well as hiring more employees. She said Dr. Bronner’s also faced child care hurdles, as parents both onsite and remote needed child care. In multiple company surveys, employees consistently cited childcare as their number one concern. Vergara said Dr. Bronner’s partnered with other companies to increase its child care program. She said the pandemic is an opportunity for companies to show their employees how much they value them by supporting them through tough times. She said the most important thing she hears from workers is that they need flexibility. In terms of equity, she said her company works to ensure all employees get the same benefits. On the topic of attracting and retaining workers, she spoke about the importance of developing staff and showing the internal opportunities workers have to move up in the company. She stressed that on the issue of childcare and retaining and attracting talent, businesses can either invest to support workers or they can pay the costs related to overtime and turnover from workers burning out. Either way, organizations are paying for it somewhere, so why not do it in a way where you can have this extra benefit and attract and retain top talent.

Closing Remarks

In their final remarks, all of the speakers emphasized the importance of collaboration across workers, employers, and federal and state government to find holistic solutions. They acknowledged the need to support children and families and also the critical importance of helping workers and businesses to keep the economy running.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.