The Role of Care Work in Pandemic Recovery

What is the role of care work in supporting the ongoing economic recovery from the pandemic?

Research from the San Francisco Fed shows that the pandemic’s disruptions have forced many mothers with children at home to drop out of the labor market—and Black and Hispanic mothers have been hardest hit.

In a Fed Listens event hosted by the SF Fed last November, researchers and leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors discussed how better supporting care work can contribute to a more inclusive economic recovery.

“Dependent care is an essential ingredient to supporting work,” said SF Fed President Mary Daly, pointing out that an overall low unemployment rate doesn’t signal that everyone who wants a job can get one. “Some of the barriers are not about job openings, but about the network of things that support work.”

Here are four takeaways from the Fed Listens dialogue with experts. Quotes are lightly edited for clarity.

1. Child care is prohibitively expensive—and even for those who can afford it, COVID has reduced availability of care.

“There is a real misalignment between when trades workers need the care and when care providers are available. Parents in the trades rely largely on informal care arrangements…because of the cost and the availability of care.”

–April Sims, Secretary Treasurer, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO

This example shows how access to affordable child care is particularly challenging for workers with nontraditional or unstable work hours.

A Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO survey of trade workers—two-thirds of respondents who were men— found that 63% of respondents said they live in a child care desert, with low or no access to child care services.

In California, about 80% to 90% of child care programs that closed during the pandemic have reopened. The state is also reporting drops in care licensing. Currently operating programs are experiencing disruptions due to ongoing COVID cases, which result in programs being shut down for a week or more.

2. It’s not enough to focus on affordable care—we also need to invest in care professionals.

“The home care workforce is an essential workforce…they need to be prioritized.”

–Cheryl Miller, Executive Director, Oregon Home Care Commission

“We’re really quite a ways away from paying what [child care] providers and teachers need to earn in order to be valued the way that we value virtually everything else.”

–Michael Olenick, President and CEO, Child Care Resource Center

Experts at the event agreed that solutions need to focus on both reducing the cost of care and raising the income of care workers. Care professionals—a majority of whom are women, immigrants, or people of color—are often the lowest paid and undervalued for their work.

In Oregon, collective bargaining has led to increases in wages, benefits, and development opportunities for home care workers in recent years. California has also seen wages rise through collective bargaining, but it is still lower than it should be, said Olenick.

3. Offering flexibility in work schedules can help mothers stay in the job market.

“Much of the adverse impact on mothers is partially offset by the ability to set working hours and having flexibility in work schedules.”

Nicolas Petrosky-Nadeau, Vice President, Economic Research, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

Petrosky-Nadeau’s research found that the flexibility to work remotely had little effect on whether or not mothers stayed in the labor market, but those who had the flexibility to set work schedules stayed employed in greater numbers than those who could not set their schedules.

4. Businesses have an opportunity to attract and retain talent by providing benefits that matter to employees, like child care assistance, and rethinking working models.

“[There’s no better way for companies] to appreciate their staff, to show them that they care, than by coming up with programs to ensure that the children of their employees are safe, and that parents can come to work and be their best self.”

–Lilia Vergara, Director of Human Resources, Dr. Bronner’s

At Dr. Bronner’s, employees cited child care as a top concern on multiple surveys during the pandemic. To ensure that employees were supported during a time of increased demand at the soap company, Dr. Bronner’s partnered with other companies to increase their child care assistance program, offering up to $7,500 a year for child care.

In addition to child care support, companies could look at offering flexibility for workers, training and development, and consistent benefits across roles and levels to help attract and retain talent.

For more details, read the full event summary or watch the event recording on our Fed Listens page.

Fed Listens is a series of community outreach events that first launched in 2019. In 2021, the focus of Fed Listens events was on the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the Fed Listens initiative and other events at the Board of Governors information site.

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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.