Last September, as a mostly remote school year was starting, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force. That’s four times the number of men who left, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
This trend of women disproportionately leaving their jobs has been consistent throughout the pandemic. Now, as another school year begins and the delta variant spreads, uncertainty over the future of working mothers is once again growing.
In March, “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal talked with Lauren Pyle and Kelli LaFont about how the pandemic affected their working lives. He checked back in with them to see how things are going. Pyle works in social services and lives in San Antonio with her husband and their 8-year-old daughter. LaFont is an employment specialist living in Fayetteville, Tennessee, with her husband and their 2-year-old son. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Lauren, I’m going to start with you. And I want to remind people what you had been through and what was going on. You were just a couple of months into a move to Texas. Your husband got a new job. You were a stay-at-home mom looking for work. How’s the last six months been?
Lauren Pyle: Yep. So I did end up finding a job, basically doing the same exact thing I was doing before. And I just started, like, two weeks ago.
Ryssdal: Well, congratulations. How long did it take you to find a job?
Pyle: OK, so from the first time that I applied with this particular organization to actually starting the job, I think it was about six months. Yeah.
Ryssdal: That’s a long time of not having a –
Pyle: It was a long time. Yup. You know, I was applying for more upper-level jobs that I thought I had qualifications for. But in this organization, you know, you really just have to start from the bottom and work your way up. And [I’m] happy to do that, just, yeah, here I am.
Ryssdal: Good. Kelly, what about you? It was a little different for you last time. If I remember, you were thinking about quitting your job. There was day care issues and closures and all of that. Give us the update.
Kelli LaFont: Well, I haven’t had to quit my job. Thankfully. We’ve transitioned to a new day care, and the day care has much better policies. We haven’t had any major closures or any kind of extended leave. And I’ve been able to stay at my job.
Who’s doing most of the child care at home?
Ryssdal: That’s good. But let me ask you, and look, this gets into, you know, life in your household, but who’s doing most of the child care stuff, you or your husband?
LaFont: We have a pretty good balance. If my son is sick, it’s usually me that has to take off. He makes more money than I do, so his job is more important — our jobs are equally as important, I like to say. But my job has been the more flexible one, so I end up taking a lot of child care.
Ryssdal: Lauren, what about you and the gap between what your husband winds up doing and what you wind up doing?
Pyle: Yeah. So it’s funny, because he ended up getting, you know, a huge pay increase when he started his new job. And I took a huge pay cut. I think I took about a 25% or 30% pay cut to start this new job. So in our household finances, you know, we’re still at a net positive, but me personally, I’m way behind now from where I would prefer to be. But you know, as I said in my last interview, you know, I’m doing what I love. I’m serving people. It is what it is.
Ryssdal: It has been, and look, we talked about this last time. It’s been a rough year and a half for everybody, rougher for women, and rougher still for moms. And I wonder, Kelly, you first, if you’re still feeling that.
“It is stressful to kind of balance it all”
LaFont: I would say yes. I mean, you know, with the increasing cases, it is feeling a little stressful. Like, what if my son gets sick? What if I get my son sick, but I’m working? I like my job. I don’t want to leave my job. But it is stressful to kind of balance it all.
Ryssdal: Lauren, what about you? Stress level?
Pyle: Um, it was pretty high when the school year started. Those first couple of days were really nerve-wracking. You know, our governor banned mandates in the schools for masks. So I have faith that, you know, even if she does get it, you know, we’ll do our best, and she’ll be OK. But thankfully, our district is now requiring them. They’re going against [Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott’s executive order. But that seems to be changing day to day, week to week. So who knows where we’re going to be at in a week?
Ryssdal: Do you think, Lauren that, I mean, I’m sure you remember this, but six or eight months ago, when women were leaving the workforce by the hundreds of thousands, that was the labor market conversation. It was “What is this pandemic doing to women?” And I wonder if you think people are still paying attention to that problem.
Loss of wealth
Pyle: I don’t know. I feel like people are just really focused on all the other things, as we should be, you know. We can’t be single-minded, but I don’t know that the conversations are really happening about, like, all of that loss of wealth, too. Because I mean, I went eight or nine months without contributing to my retirement as well. We haven’t really been making student loan payments, because we’ve only been on one income. Like all of those losses, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to recover that.
Ryssdal: I’m sure you two have thought of this. What happens if in your job or in school or in your husband’s work, somebody gets exposed? Have you two thought about that, Lauren?
Pyle: Yep. So we haven’t addressed that with my employer yet. I assume I’ll learn that information in the coming weeks or when it happens. So obviously, I’m going to be the one to stay home, and it just, it hurts because I am doing a really important job that people need. My husband, love you again, he is not. So when, if and when my daughter gets an exposure or one of us gets sick or whatever, you know, it’s never a question. I make way less than he does. We cannot afford for him to be taking leave without pay. It’s just, it’s going to be me.
Ryssdal: Kelli, I’m guessing it’s the same for you.
LaFont: It is. And we both work in areas where we could get exposed pretty easily. My husband works in health care, so he is in hospitals. We’re both vaccinated. But here, people have acted like the pandemic is over. So I worry that it’s not a question of if we will be exposed, but when. So it would be back to where we were last year where I would be balancing work with a toddler who would have to be out for 14 days, I think is the day care’s rules. It’s stressful to think about.