‘I Thought It Was Going To Break Me’: COVID’s Brutal Toll on Working Mothers
Throughout the last year, we’ve seen an endless stream of depressing statistics about the economic impact Covid has had on women. The toll Covid has had on working women is breathtaking. Over 2 million women are no longer in the labor force at all, reverting to 1988 levels of labor participation for women in the US – a generation of progress erased in a year. Even if 2021 sees a successful turnaround on the virus, without targeted public policy changes, it will take until 2030 to climb back to 2019 employment levels for women, according to gender economist Katica Roy.
Some of the hardest hit are mothers, who are more likely to earn less than childless women and fathers, and who have often taken on more caregiving responsibilities. Women of color also faced wage gaps before the pandemic and are more likely to work in the service sector and low-wage jobs – brutally hard-hit industries.
As we near the first anniversary of the Covid shutdowns we put faces to these large, faceless statistics. These are the stories of five mothers with young children who have been laid off, pushed out, unable to find work – battling circumstances far beyond their control as they work to keep their families afloat.
Caliana Muñoz, 24, former lead VIP Performance Venue host, currently a clerk at shipping container company in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Single mom to a four-year-old.
What Caliana expected to earn in 2020: $20-25,000.
How much the pandemic has cost her: $20,000 in lost income and interest on credit card debt.
What have you lost, beyond money? My innocence. I thought there was no way the government wouldn’t extend the federal unemployment benefits this summer. When I realized I would only be getting $91 a week in unemployment from the state, it was a moment of panic.
Caliana’s story: At the start of 2020, I was a VIP host at a new music venue. It was really promising and exciting. It was part-time and my hours were a little erratic, but I felt confident it would turn into a full-time job.
When everything closed, I really appreciated the time because it was just me and my daughter. I didn’t have work. She didn’t have school. Every day was a new adventure. The first stimulus really saved me, but my biggest saving grace is that I own a home. It was passed down to me from a relative and it was paid off. I don’t pay rent, but I do incur other expenses, like property taxes, utilities, repair costs.
Not knowing what would happen to my music venue job, I looked for other paying work. I did sporadic shifts as an exotic dancer at a Gentlemen’s club, but I wasn’t too comfortable with it. It gave me body image issues, and I felt like I was doing it out of desperation. The dancers wore masks and the patrons were supposed to wear masks, but many didn’t want to. The venue had to close at 11pm, so the money wasn’t very good – I’d make maybe $100 or $150 a night.
I found a part-time job with the census, but by the fall I was going into credit card debt to pay for food. I probably should have applied for food stamps, but didn’t think of it. I was moving to payment plans on all my bills because I couldn’t pay the full amount.
I remember one day crying, thinking, what am I going to do? I responded to a Linkedin ad – and found the job I have now. I never would have imagined working for an international shipping company.
After I started my new job, I heard at the end of 2020 about how 12 million people could lose their unemployment benefits if Congress didn’t act, and I just started crying because I felt so grateful for this opportunity. Maybe I’ll be able to grow my career or live in another country someday. I’ve already gotten one raise, and I now make $39,000 a year, plus health insurance and benefits. Much more than I made as a VIP host. It’s just the best thing that’s been able to happen to me during the pandemic, to be honest.
Elisa Cardnell, 34, navy veteran, former congressional candidate, political consultant, executive director of Moms in Office.
Divorced mom to a 10-year-old in Houston, Texas.
What Elisa expected to earn in 2020: $60,000.
How much the pandemic has cost her: $50,000 (lost salary, savings and retirement fund liquidation, investments in her new businesses).
What have you lost, beyond money?: The extrovert in me has been struggling so much this last year with not seeing people and not having that social interaction that was abundant on the campaign trail.
When 2020 started, I was in the midst of a congressional campaign. My life was 100 miles an hour, and I was away from home from probably 7.30am to 10pm most nights. Life was busy and I was good financially. I wasn’t rich, but I was steady and stable, which is what you expect from someone who’s in their mid-30s and working. We were actually one of the first campaigns in the country to hire a nanny on staff because as a single mom – I was a teacher before I ran for office – I didn’t have the resources to pay out of my own pocket. I saw my daughter as much as I could, and she knew I was going to go do things to change the world.
We forced a runoff in the Democratic primary, but I was running against a better funded candidate. We announced the decision on March 9th to end the campaign. That was Monday, and by Friday, I was a stay-at-home mom with a kid doing virtual school for the rest of third grade. I couldn’t take a salary from the campaign any more, so I was reliant on my VA disability income – I’m an 80% disabled veteran through the VA.
It took until late April to get unemployment. The system wasn’t designed for this level of unemployment. While I waited, I tapped out my mutual fund – I had a little bit of a Roth IRA and I pulled every penny I could to make it through those couple of months. But once unemployment kicked in, the federal benefit of $600 a week meant I was making ends meet. One of the things I figured was after I ran for Congress, there would be opportunities open to me outside of the classroom. I put out applications but, to be honest, I don’t think a lot of people were hiring, even when they had job postings listed.
When the $600 federal unemployment ran out this summer – I put my mortgage into forbearance, I had the loan through the VA, but I couldn’t afford to pay it. There was a time where my bank account hovered around zero.
I’m very fortunate, even without a steady full-time job, to have had access to good healthcare through the VA – the vast majority of Americans don’t have this when they are between jobs.
I am still committed to helping my community. I used my stimulus checks to start two different businesses – one to help with virtual learning and one to get more working-class people running for office.
Andrea Rhymes, 27, flight attendant and photographer in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Partnered and 36 weeks pregnant (at time of interview).
How much she expected to earn in 2020: $45,000.
How much the pandemic has cost her: $30,000 (in lost salary and earnings expected from her photography business).
Where do you see yourself in two years? Running and owning my photography business, a studio, full time.
Andrea’s story: In January 2020, I received my “line” as a flight attendant – my schedule for the following month. With that comes more money and freedom. I was planning to invest in my photography business. I started shooting professionally two years ago, but have been a photographer since 2009.
When the pandemic hit, I was still flying, but things changed a lot. In early April, I remember going through three major airport hubs and it felt like a ghost town. I was operating flights with 10 people consistently, and I even operated a flight with one passenger. My airline didn’t shut down completely, but through April and May I got maybe four calls throughout both months. I was home a lot, and so was my boyfriend.
In June, I realized I might be pregnant. I kept working throughout the summer, but the job got harder. The airline clientele changed a lot. We didn’t have a lot of business travellers any more, and because the airlines lowered their prices so much, we had a lot of people who were first-time flyers. Some of them looked for loopholes to get out of wearing a mask, like saying “I’m eating!” during the whole flight. One passenger was asked twice to put his mask on, and when I asked him a third time, he yelled: “I shouldn’t have to listen to a 5ft-nothing Black woman. Don’t you know who I am?” He jumped up and other passengers held him back from rushing me. I was about 16 weeks pregnant at the time, and all I could think about was protecting my baby. That was my last flight.
After that I took a voluntary unpaid leave. I applied for food stamps and unemployment. I’ve never shied away from asking for help and right now the country is crying for help. But I’ve been employed since I was 16, so I don’t like sitting idle. I had to force myself to create nine-to-five office hours and be a business woman for my photography business. I was able to get three to four bookings a week during the warmer months, and my community really rallied around me, as a Black-owned business.
Jenna Mason, 39, writer, editor and waitress. Oxford, Mississippi.
Divorced mom to two kids, 13 and 10.
What Jenna expected to earn in 2020: $32,000.
How much the pandemic has cost her: $25,000 (in lost income, bill payment late fees and moving costs).
What have you lost, beyond money? Confidence in myself. I’ve lost the image of myself as a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman and mother.
Jenna’s story: My primary work is as a writer and editor at a non-profit, but I’ve worked in restaurants on and off for about 20 years, picking up shifts to earn extra money.
At the start of 2020, my non-profit job cut my hours in half, so I hustled to get more waitressing gigs to help with medical bills (I don’t have health insurance and broke my kneecap in the summer of 2019.) Then everything shut down. The timing was terrible for our college town. When they cancelled the first home baseball series, everyone working in restaurants was like, “we are really screwed”.
I got federal and state unemployment for about four weeks, but I went back to work when restaurants reopened, so I wasn’t eligible. I definitely wasn’t earning enough to get by with 25% capacity dining rooms and doing curbside pickup.
I was diagnosed with depression years ago, which I’ve taken medication for. Over the summer, the stress of not earning enough money and fear of catching Covid sent my anxiety through the roof. I was slower and forgetful in ways that don’t work well in restaurants. I even had to leave shifts early.
A new prescription helped, but when it ran out I couldn’t afford a refill. It was much more expensive than my previous one, moving from a few dollars to $80 a month. I got let go from my two waitressing jobs, so I’m back to just doing the 15 hours a week at the non-profit. I’ve had to borrow from friends and family.
I grew up Christian. There’s a Bible verse, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Now I really have a totally different understanding of that Bible verse. It feels good to help other people and it feels awful to have them help you.
My rock bottom moment came on December 5th. We came home and my 13-year-old son found an eviction notice on the front door. I wouldn’t have wanted him to see that. I was half a month behind on the rent, but I’d spoken with the landlord and thought we had an understanding. Instead of moving in January, I was given three days to move. Since the eviction, my kids have been living with their dad full time. Until I can save up and find my own place, I’ve been staying in a friend’s extra bedroom, rent-free.
One silver lining is the outpouring of support from friends and family. There were a lot of times where I really thought this was going to break me and it hasn’t yet.
Shana Thomas, 42, former store manager. Currently an in-home caregiver for her youngest daughter, and a virtual learning assistant (unpaid) for her two oldest children.
Married with three kids, 13, 10, and six.
What Shana expected to earn in 2020: $93,000.
What the pandemic has cost her: between $60,000-70,000 including lost salary and bonuses, retirement contributions, unexpected medical deductibles and bills from losing her employer provided health insurance, and moving costs.
Where do you see yourself in two years?: I hope we are finally unpacked from our move, and we are getting the girls outside, camping, hiking, doing the things that we love and not looking back.
Our youngest daughter Bridget is a thriving kindergartener, but she has a lot of needs. She’s cognitively typical, but she is partially paralyzed and is a wheelchair user – she requires a lot of therapies. When the shutdowns happened, my work ramped up and that really impacted the family.
My oldest was fine, but my middle daughter would spend 10 hours a day struggling with her assignments while I was at work – a nightmare for her. Preschool basically went away for Bridget and all of her therapies stopped. My husband was working full-time from home, and it was just impossible to split his time between his own job, helping our middle daughter with school and taking care of Bridget. It was a really tough situation.
There was a day this summer my husband and I finally reflected on how horrible this spring was for the two younger girls and what that would look like if things weren’t back to normal in August. We didn’t see any possibility of things being back to normal by August.
We looked at options. We were renting a home in a very nice area in Santa Clarita in LA county – the schools were great. We couldn’t afford to live there on one income. My grandparents’ house in San Diego had been vacant for a year and a half, next door to my parents, and my dad had told us on multiple occasions, “Hey, there’s a house for you here if you need it, if something ever happened.” We decided the best thing for the family would be to move to San Diego. We’re very lucky to have this opportunity. We are paying taxes, and utilities and are working on buying the house – but the costs are much lower than our rent in LA.
Even though I earned a little more than my husband with my end-of-the-year bonuses, we decided I should be the one to quit my job. I have a background in education. And his job is remote and flexible, meaning he could work from San Diego, whereas mine had to be in-person in LA. When I put in my notice, I cried through it, I’m not ashamed to say that. My boss didn’t make it easy for me because he didn’t want me to go – I’d worked there for almost 20 years.
California allows a relative to be a paid caregiver for family members with disabilities, so that is now my official paid job now – taking care of Bridget. When I worked as a retail manager, I made $40 an hour. Now I make $14.25, and there’s a cap on the hours. Given that caring for Bridget is a 24/7 job, it would never cover the time we spend. They haven’t raised the hours of care cap, though, even though she is no longer going to school in-person.
Recently, a Facebook memory popped up of me speaking on a panel. I remember saying, “you can have it all, you can have a career, you can have the kids, this company is great and you can make it work”. I took a lot of pride in that. It made me sad, because I’m not in that same position now.
Even though I got a huge sense of identity from the job I left, right now I want to enjoy every morsel of this time with my kids, with the ages that they are at.
Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the creator of The Double Shift podcast, a narrative show that challenges the status quo of motherhood in America. Listen and subscribe here for an audio series of this story, which begins airing March 10th.
Co-published with The Guardian.