Operator: Welcome to the New York Times' Primal Scream line, where the floor is yours to yell, laugh, cry, or vent for a solid minute.
Caller 1: I just wanted to say- [screams]
Tanzina Vega: Honestly, that could've been me screaming or one of the many hundreds of parents who contacted us here at The Takeaway over the past several months to share their stories. You see, the pandemic is just too hard on working parents, especially working mothers. I mean, it's so hard that the New York Times set up a hotline to give parents an outlet to vent. It's the centerpiece of a series called the Primal Scream. Here's some more of what moms who called into The Times' hotline had to say.
Caller 2: I cannot remember the last time I did not worry, I did not go in my day worrying about so much. Every day is something different. I just want to wake up and go through my day and not worry and not wonder and not know what the future holds because this right here sucks, and I'm sick of it. I'm so sick.
Caller 3: I'm going to [beep] lose my mind if something doesn't happen soon.
Caller 4: There is just so much talking, talking all the time, all day long, words, words, words. All I hear- [laughs] All the little ones say, "Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom."
Tanzina: Well, we hear you moms and some dads, and we know that you need help. Today, we're going to ask what role employers and the government should have in making this situation, at least, sustainable. Let's all scream together, shall we? We're going to get to that today on The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. Claire Cain Mille is a correspondent for a New York Times covering gender, families, and the future of work. Hey, Claire.
Claire: Hi. How are you?
Tanzina: Good. Also with us as Joan C. Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a professor at the University of California Hastings Law, and her center started a free legal advice helpline last April. Joan, welcome to The Takeaway.
Joan: Delighted to be here.
Tanzina: When the calls started coming in, what was the change, if you say, that you started to see during the course of the pandemic?
Joan: Well, we've had a seven-fold increase in calls to our hotlines. The changes were dramatic. I mean, women's whole infrastructure for taking care of children just absolutely disappeared overnight in many cases. They were just at wit's end. First, they had nothing. Then, they had what's called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that gave them the right to 12 weeks of leave if they had no childcare or their child's school was closed. Single moms, they couldn't afford to take the leave. They were making really hard choices. Even partnered moms, very often, couldn't afford to take the leave. The first wave of calls were for the many, many women who could and did take the leave, but then, those leaves disappeared on December 31st.
We're dealing with calls, the same kinds of calls that we've been dealing with all along, women who are pregnant, who are very apprehensive about going back to work because the science around pregnancy and COVID is basically very, very nascent, women who were working remotely and wanted to continue but whose employers refuse to have them continue, women who were really worried because there was a fragile person in their household, who if they got COVID, whether it was a child or an elder, were likely to get severe forms of COVID so they wanted to telework, and sometimes, their employers would not let them telework.
Now, we hear lots of so-called COVID layoffs, which I was just reading one case, the only two people laid off in the entire company were the plaintiff who was pregnant and another woman who was on maternity leave.
Tanzina: We're going to get into some of the specifics here, Joan, on some of the legal issues that those raises. I want to bring in Claire here. Claire, you were a part of this New York Times project, and you wrote a piece where you mentioned Betsy Stevenson, who's an economist at the University of Michigan. I want to quote what she said. She said, "People talk about how moms can lift a car off their children, but even though you can do it, it doesn't mean you didn't do damage to your body when lifting the car." Really good point. What is the cost to working moms right now, Claire, who are dealing with this, if that's our metaphor?
Claire: I think it's a generational hit to women in the labor force and earning their own incomes. We had just, right before the pandemic hit, crossed the 50% line. Women held more than half of non-farm jobs, which is the way they measure it in this country. Now, both men and women's employment has been hurt by this recession, of course, but when you look individually at parents, mothers have been hurt much more than fathers. Of course, it's not just income. It's also mental health. As one of the people on the scream line said, just constant anxiety about your kids. It's all of it.
Tanzina: I'm wondering what you're seeing, generally speaking, about caregivers, whether or not they're being penalized by their employers, because that level of stress, and I mean, I've experienced it, a lot of parents are experiencing it, you can't help but having that have an effect on your job. Are women being given, generally speaking, the ability to manage that, or are they afraid that they could lose their jobs?
Claire: At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of employers gave people the ability to shift their hours or work flexibly, and that was a great response at the beginning. It's not a great response a year in. What it has meant is that people are working nights and weekends. They're waking up before dawn. Maybe that worked last March for a month, it doesn't work for a year. It means they're just doing double the amount of work. For essential workers, maybe they've shifted their schedules around that of their co-parents so the two parents never see one another. They're like ships in the night.
It's really not enough to understand that people need to work at different hours. What needs to be understood is that if you have caregiving responsibilities, it is a complete and total second job that you have going on inside your house, and you can't be expected to do both. Employers, some have said that they will not penalize working parents, that they'll understand.
It's not just parents here, everybody's been stressed about COVID. People have gotten sick. People are caring for elder relatives. They've said they'll not penalize them in some cases. In other cases, as Joan mentioned, they already are being penalized. It's hard to know. As we all know, on this call and on this show today, that women were penalized for their additional caregiving responsibilities even in normal times. It's hard to imagine when it comes time for hiring or reviews, that employers won't look at these resume gaps or this decrease in productivity and penalize women in some way.
Tanzina: Joan, the federal government under the Trump administration did issue some protections for parents under the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. That expired on December 31st. That afforded me, for example, the ability to take a couple of days and care for my child, but it is now expired. Who is left out, and why, Joan?
Joan: Who's left out is basically everybody. Biden has a proposal that would bring the leave back and actually enhance it. Now, mothers, and this is true, fathers too, but really-- I call it the great COVID cop-out, mothers have been left holding the bag in a very, very huge way.
Tanzina: Joan, is that because we, as women, are expected to hold the bag, or do we, as women, expect to hold the bag?
Joan: It's complicated at some level, and at some level, it's not complicated at all. Men know if they don't do it, women will. Women know if they don't do it, no one will. There's a forthcoming study that shows something really dramatic, which is that when the mom is the only one working remote, surprise, surprise, she does a lot more of the household tasks. When the dad is the only one working remote, he doesn't do more childcare.
People often say, "Oh, this is just mother's hormones or mother's priorities or mother's choices," but actually, no, it's widely held expectations. It's really two sets. One, is that the ideal worker is someone who is always available for work. That just means we define the ideal worker as someone who has somebody else, typically a woman, taking care of everything outside of work. That job description is typically not available for women. We have the ideal worker defined as someone who's always available for work. The ideal mother is someone who is always available to her children. That's what lands us in this situation again and again and again.
Tanzina: You were starting, Joan, to talk a little bit about Biden's plan. I would like to hear a little bit about what you think so far. You said it's going to be enhanced, how so?
Joan: The Biden plan would be great. It would bring back the leave. This is the first time in American history we've had national paid family leave, and the first time, that I'm aware of, that we've had leave just because you just don't have childcare. This would bring back the leaves that are available to people whose childcares are closed, whose schools are remote, and it would increase the amount of leave up to 14 weeks of leave.
Also, very importantly, as the first set of leaves, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act leaves, the ones that just ended, those excluded 106 million people originally as interpreted by the Trump administration. These new leaves, the Biden plan, would not exclude anything like that number of people. It'd be very, very important to get these leaves back for people.
Tanzina: Claire, we've got about 40 seconds left, but I'm curious, does this proposal appear to be on its way to make it through?
Claire: It's unclear. The Democrats are working very hard to push it through as quickly as possible. There is a lot, in fact, of bipartisan support for paid leave. His proposal includes a lot of other things like money for families, like retirement help for women who have had to take career pauses. It's unclear if it will all make it through, but paid leave does seem to have support.
Tanzina: Joan, you wanted to bring up the issue of anxiety that many mothers are experiencing right now. Tell us about that.
Joan: Well, mothers should realize that they have quite a lot of legal rights. If your employer is discriminating against you because you're a mom, that's illegal. People who are extremely anxious also may well have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act because that's a disability. Not only can an employer not discriminate against you because you have anxiety, but you're entitled to workplace accommodations if you have anxiety, and those accommodations may include getting leave from your job.
This is completely different from the leaves we've been talking about. This is an Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation. We have been hearing from mothers who, as Claire pointed out, are just in a wild state of anxiety. Then, many people who had anxiety conditions even before COVID and before this whole mess, that's one of the contexts in which you have rights to leave.
Tanzina: Claire, one of the things that's come up in this issue, obviously, is childcare. A lot of mothers have decided to leave their jobs to fill the childcare gap, but obviously, that's not an option for all mothers. What kinds of policies, Claire, are you seeing that would help fill that childcare gap? One of the things that I've called for, in a recent piece in the Washington Post that I wrote, was calling for the Biden-Harris administration to create some national childcare system. Is that even a possibility?
Claire: It's something that a lot of democratic policymakers have wanted to see well before COVID, and like so many things, COVID has just laid bare some of the crises that people in the United States are facing. I think one of the important things for people to realize is that the things that would help people in normal times, like paid leave for short periods, aren't necessarily the most important thing right now.
For example, when you have a new baby or maybe when you have a relative who's in hospice, you need a short period of time away from work, relatively short to care for that person. This has gone on for a year. 12 weeks of paid leave is definitely necessary for a lot of people. I'm not saying it's not necessary, but people need more than 12 weeks. Schools continue to be closed, childcare centers continue to be closed or unavailable or parents don't feel they're safe, and what can really help there is money. A lot of the women that we've talked to and that we've seen surveyed, nationally, say they don't actually want to leave work or they can't leave work.
In that case, what they need is money to find childcare elsewhere. Maybe it's a neighbor, maybe it is going to a daycare, or hiring an in-home care provider. People who didn't have nannies before are looking at nannies right now because that would really help, that would decrease the contacts in your family, help with the virus, but of course, many people can't afford that. The government plans that would actually just send checks to parents, as well as employers who are finding ways to subsidize childcare, to me, that seems like one of the most effective policies that we could see right now.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about the differences here between how race is factoring into this. You mentioned there's also people with partners, single parents, there are low-income women, Joan, how do each of these groups fair in this, and what are the different challenges because, as a single parent myself, I feel like the options are not as available to me to stop working even if it's for a short amount of time?
Joan: Absolutely. This has reinforced both racial hierarchies and gender hierarchies in a very, very big way. We hear so often from single moms. I mean, some of them are in the situation where they have to choose between whether to put food on the table and leave really small kids, six, eight-year-olds, home alone. Those are the kinds of choices that single moms are often facing. Of course, anything that has a differential effect on single moms has a different differential effect by race, because two-thirds of Black moms, for example, are single moms.
One of the things that we focused on in talking so far about leave is that, often, people want other accommodations. They don't want leave. For example, I remember reading a case of one single mom, and she just wanted a couple of hours a day to supervise the remote schooling and her employer was refusing to give that. That's one of the things that the Families First leaves gave people is the ability to take leave in short segments, for an hour a day or whatever they wanted. If the leave comes back, they'll also have that.
There are other reasons why people might be able to demand an accommodation for remote work. We hear all the time from people on our hotlines who have been working remotely, effectively, and then, their employers order everybody back to work, and they say, "Do I have any legal rights?" It's a complicated question. If you're in that situation, you should definitely call the hotline, but you may have legal rights if you're being treated more harshly than workers who aren't moms because you're a mom. That is sex discrimination, and you don't have to put up with that. In terms of the class impacts and the racial impacts, they're really dramatic.
Tanzina: Joan C. Williams is the director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a professor at the University of California Hastings Law and Claire Cain Mille is a correspondent for the New York Times covering gender, families, and the future of work. Claire and Joan, thanks for joining me.
Claire: Thanks so much.
Joan: Thank you.
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