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How the pandemic affected one paramedic’s career

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A woman pushes a child in a stroller.

Women’s labor force participation fell to 56.2% in June, the lowest levels since 1988, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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With the pandemic forcing school and daycare closures around the country, children are spending more time at home — and women are feeling the impact of that on their careers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women’s labor force participation fell to 56.2% in June, the lowest level since 1988.

Phoebe Cohen, a mother and licensed paramedic, illustrated a piece for “The Nib” about her decision to quit her job as a paramedic and take up delivering food in order to take care of her son. “I literally could not afford to work as a paramedic,” Cohen said. “I was literally working to pay the babysitter.”

Cohen spoke to “Marketplace” guest host Reema Khrais about how a lack of affordable childcare is affecting her career. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Reema Khrais: It sounds like you took on a new job because you had a look after your son. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Phoebe Cohen: Well, basically, at this point, I do a little food delivery with Uber Eats with my son in the backseat, and, you know, it was grinding. The thing is, I was in many ways one of the luckier ones when it comes to single mothers just trying to pay the bills while having absolutely no low-cost daycare or anything like that. I mean, I am suffering, my career is suffering, but I have my own car. I can do this.

Khrais: And so as you’re making these deliveries with your son in the backseat. How’s he making sense of everything?

Cohen: I think he realizes I’m in work mode. He’s on the spectrum, he has ASD. But lately he has been so good and so patient, like he’s been understanding that this is something mommy has to do. And he’s been very good at the car. He loves riding in the car, and I am really grateful about what a good boy he’s been. And I’m very touched because he shouldn’t have to do this. He should be with his friends, he should be playing outside, he should be in daycare. And daycare is of course, either he’s much too old, or they don’t have the resources to handle a child with autism, or they’re just too expensive for me. So this is sort of like a compromise that I shouldn’t have to make.

Khrais: So, you’ve been doing this through most of the pandemic. But before this, you were a paramedic. Can you tell me about that? Why did you make that shift?

Cohen: I literally could not afford to work as a paramedic. So in the area I’m in — I’m in a pretty rural area — paramedics make about $17 an hour and the babysitters make $15 an hour. So, I was literally working to pay the babysitter and whatever $2 an hour net income I was making, of course, went to gas or to coffee or whatever. It was simply unsustainable for me. And I remember feeling the incredible injustice of it all, saying, “This can’t be right, there has to be some other alternative,” and just realizing the more research I did — nope, nope, nope — because this daycare crisis has been allowed to persist because the people being affected by it are disproportionately women. And if women are the ones being disproportionately affected by it, it’s seen as not an important crisis.

Khrais: Well, you know, thinking about your career path, you started off as a paramedic. And it sounds like you envisioned having a career in the medical field. And now you’re spending most of your days driving around delivering orders with your son in the back. And as you’re doing all this, as you’re trying to find the right apartment, and you know, making sure that your son’s OK, what sorts of thoughts do you often find running through your head?

Cohen: Well, just sadness and frustration, really, because I’m not advancing my career. I’m getting older. I’m not really building a retirement fund. I’m not saving up for those sort of investments that previous generations made, like, you know, buying a house or getting a mortgage or anything. And yeah, we’re stuck in a situation where we are not going to have a long-term financial cushion to support us until old age or to support our children, if our children went into financial emergencies during their young adult lives.

Khrais: Personally, for you, what needs to happen so that you’re able to return to the career that you’ve already invested in?

Cohen: It would have to be some sort of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week childcare. And that sounds like extreme, but no. So many women work careers where they’re on a 24-hour workday, where they have to take night shifts. We’re talking about home health care providers, nursing home providers, nurses, and we need to be essentially funded in some way because childcare providers themselves, who are disproportionately women, they also need to pay their bills. So, an entire generation of women is getting locked out of the middle class. It has to be addressed and dealt with.

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