For working parents today, changes needed


Leanne Ricchiuti was pregnant when she started looking for day care options. She estimates she spoke to 40 day care centers to find a spot for her son without success. There were no openings and wait-lists were often more than a year.

“I was becoming extremely scared, at that point my job becomes in jeopardy,” Ricchiuti said. “A lot of times this is the point where the mothers decide whether or not to just stay home with their child or continue their career. That wasn’t really an option for me. I really wanted to continue with my career, and I wanted my child to have the socialization that comes with going to a day care.”

Ricchiuti is facing the juggling so many working parents with children at home during the pandemic have lived through for more than a year.

“I’m up until 11:30 at night trying to get work done,” Ricchiuti said. “You are on the verge of being a bad mom because you aren’t paying attention to your child, or you are being a bad employee because you aren’t paying attention to your job. I’ll be on a Zoom call with a statewide client and I’m pushing my kid away … So what does that look like to the client? That I’m not paying attention to them? That I’m not paying attention to my child?”

Affordable and accessible day care, more inclusive paid parental leave and flexible work schedules are measures advocates and policy experts are fighting for to make sure another “she-cession” — the marked departure of women from the workforce during the pandemic — doesn’t happen again. The American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s historic stimulus package, has the potential to help a lot, advocates say, but it will only allow working parents to thrive if it is spent wisely.

For women, and in particular women of color, the pandemic has resulted in a cost to their identities, career paths, families and communities. The cost has also hurt the economy: Almost 2 million women have dropped out of the workforce since March 2020, according to U.S. Department of Labor.

In part, this is because women occupy the jobs in industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic: education, hospitality, personal care and service jobs. As such, women were laid off at a disproportionately higher rate than men as many industries and workplaces shutdown. And because they often take on greater child care responsibilities, women more than men left work when schools went remote and child care programs closed.

Child care is crucial

By the time Ricchiuti’s paid leave was up, she still did not have day care secured. For the next year, she and her husband scrambled, piecing together unsatisfactory child care options: a friend’s mom who soon moved away, an unlicensed home day care, a caregiver who lived 35 minutes away from both Ricchiuti’s home and office who closed suddenly because she broke her back.

Even before the pandemic, many parents lived in child care deserts, according to Brightside Up, a child care resource provider formerly known as Capital District Child Care Coordinating Council.

Child care is often so expensive that it forces many women to stay home. Since women typically earn less than men, the economic rationale is often for the partner with the higher earnings to keep working, said Ariane Hegewisch, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy.

Day care in New York state is more expensive than most other states in the country. It can cost up to $15,400 a year per child, according to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute. In Albany County, child care at a center, on average, costs $232 per week for an infant, according to Brightside Up.

The pandemic forced many day care centers to close, at first because of state mandates and later because they financially couldn’t afford to stay open as many parents kept their children home to avoid coronavirus exposure and stopped paying tuition, said Abbe Kovacik, executive director of Brightside Up.

“For a child care center, that is a big hit to a center’s bottom line,” Kovacik said. “If you don’t have tuition coming in, you don’t have salary money.

“We already had this large group of people (day care providers) who were retiring at a pretty rapid rate, faster than we were replacing them, and the pandemic just increased that,” Kovacik said. “So they just closed. They are never going to open. They are just done.”

For the centers that are still managing, Biden’s plan will bring almost $40 billion to the child care sector nationally, and $2.3 billion to New York child care providers and parents.

For providers, there will be grants that can help pay workers, pay rent, do repairs and much more, said Jenn O’Connor, director of policy and advocacy at Prevent Child Abuse New York. For families, they will be able to apply for child care tuition assistance through the state’s Office of Children and Family Services.

“This is seen as historic and revolutionary for the child care infrastructure that collapsed during the pandemic,” said Rosemary Batt, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “This is really a policy that has developed based on 50 years of child care advocates and advocates for working families putting forth proposals to help women and families with children.”

And Biden’s American Families Plan, proposed in late April, could bring even more relief. The plan, if passed, provides direct aid to families and promises that low and middle income families would not have to spend more than seven percent of their income on child care.

Paid time off

Despite New York being one of nine states in the country to have paid family and medical leave laws, it still leaves some working mothers behind. Leanne Ricchiuti had only worked at her job for less than a year before her son was born so she was not eligible for paid benefits under the federal FMLA law.

“(The company I work for) was really great about it, they didn’t want to see me leave, but legally they weren’t obligated to hold a spot for me … if I decided to (take) leave,” Ricchiuti said.

The law allows for individuals to leave work to bond with a newborn, take care of a family member with a serious health condition — including COVID-19 — or assist when a family member is deployed on active military service.

Even if a parent can take paid leave, for women, often it means when they come back they have fallen behind in terms of pay and promotions.

“It is very hard (for a woman) to catch up with (other) women who haven’t taken time off,” Hegewisch said about women who take maternity leave. “And that is typically so in the better-paid jobs because there is more wage progression, but it is also true of lower-paying jobs.”

The pandemic also revealed that a lot of people in low-wage jobs didn’t have access to paid sick time, Hegewisch said. More reliable hours, so parents can maintain quality and consistent schedules for themselves and their children will also go a long way, Hegewishch said.

The American Families Plan, if passed, could mark a significant change for working parents. Biden’s plan includes $225 billion dollars toward creating guaranteed 12 weeks of paid leave to every new parent, as well as caregivers and those who are ill.

Flexible work schedules

Tara O’Leary is a working mom who had never stayed at home with her two sons, ages 7 and 9, all day long until the pandemic hit.

“(Now) I’m able to pick up my kids every day after school,” said O’Leary, whose sons have been back in school since September. “Now I have to come home and get back on the computer and do some things but even just that perception of being home has been a positive.”

O’Leary hopes to maintain that type of presence with her children once her office is back to work in person.

Teleworking is not a solution when you do not have proper child care but when you do, teleworking can really help, Hegewisch said. She warns that employers need to make sure there is no discrimination for mothers or for whomever would like to work remotely from home for portions of the work day once the pandemic is over.

“We need new procedures that acknowledge performance that make sure it isn’t ‘out of office out of mind,’ or ‘out of office I can’t see your performance as well,’ ” Hegewisch said. “We need to get to a place that really captures people’s performance but also acknowledges that not everyone can work from home. Not everyone has the space.”

Batt, from Cornell University, has conducted research on human resource management for decades and is not optimistic that the pandemic’s forced work arrangements will be long-lasting.

“We’ve had waves of interest in flexible ‘family friendly’ policies — flexible scheduling, job sharing, telecommuting — especially when labor demand outstrips labor supply, but the uptake of policies that improve flexibility for working parents [as opposed to companies] has been slim,” Batt said. “When companies talk about ‘flexibility’ they often mean people being available on call or at odd hours, or via email at any time — in other words, flexibility that helps companies but not necessarily working families.

“My guess is that the pandemic has given companies more confidence that people can be productive while working remotely, but working from home, especially for women, often means greater demands of juggling Zoom meetings with children crying in the background, leading to greater tension between work and family rather than less,” Batt said.

Kelly Reale, who has two daughters at home, and cares for her brother who has special needs, works full-time as a senior vice president at KeyBank. Years ago, on her own initiative, she went through a formal proposal process to ask her employer for a flexible work schedule.

“I would like to condense my hours to these numbers of hours in the office, and I will check my Blackberry until X time at night,” Reale said about what her presentation included. “I had a lot of details in there about why it would work for my particular role. I proved myself.

“You have to ask for what you need,” she said. “It’s important to know what you need and go find the place where you can get what you need to take care of yourself.”



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