How the Coronavirus Pandemic Stalled Some Parents’ Careers

Millions of parents, mostly mothers, have stopped working for pay because of the pandemic child care crisis. But for many more who have held on to their jobs, child care demands have also affected their careers, often in less visible ways. They have worked fewer hours, declined assignments or decided not to take a promotion or pursue a new job.

Economists call this the intensive margin — how much people work, as opposed to how many are in the labor force — and it’s harder to quantify in official employment statistics. Yet there is evidence that employed parents have slowed their careers while child care schedules continue to be upended. It has short-term effects on their professional contributions, and could have long-term effects on their careers, research suggests, because American employers tend to penalize people who work at less than full capacity.

“I think a lot of women who weren’t forced out count themselves lucky — but they were forced to be quiet,” said Maria Rapier, a mother of three who left a job — where she ran a department and contributed to board meetings — to take a lower-level, less demanding position. “Even if they did get to keep their job, they couldn’t participate fully because half the time they were looking over their laptop at their kids and the laundry piling up.”

She feels as if she is treading water. In the Bay Area, where she lives, some schools never opened last year, and fall openings are not guaranteed.

“I’m sitting here doing data entry and I know that with my education and experience, I could be at the table where decisions are being made,” she said. “So it was a blow to my ego. But also the profession, because I’m good at making those strategic decisions.”

In a survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times during the school year, of 468 mothers working for pay, one-third said they had worked fewer hours during the pandemic because of child care issues, and an additional one-fifth had moved to part time.

Twenty-eight percent declined new responsibilities at work. Twenty-three percent did not apply for new jobs, and 16 percent did not pursue a promotion.

While in general people working at home because of the pandemic have said in various surveys that remote work has made them more productive, just 11 percent of mothers said so in the Morning Consult survey. Nearly a quarter said they had been less productive because of child care responsibilities (the remaining two-thirds said their productivity was unchanged).

Even as much of America has reopened, life does not resemble prepandemic normal for most parents of young children. Children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated. Some child care centers, pools and children’s museums remain closed or have capacity restrictions. Many summer programs are not fully operating, or parents feel uncomfortable sending unvaccinated children to them, especially with the rise in cases from the Delta variant.

The Census Bureau has been surveying families weekly during the pandemic. In the latest installment, covering June 23 to July 5, 26 percent of respondents living with children who were unable to attend school or day care for pandemic reasons said an adult in the household had cut paid work hours in the last week as a result. One-quarter said an adult had taken unpaid leave to care for children, and another fifth used paid leave, like vacation or sick days, to do so.

“Nobody’s talking about that,” said Misty L. Heggeness, a principal economist at the Census Bureau. “Even though they’re in that active work status, we are going to see gender equality slip if we don’t pay attention to the intensive margin.”

Single mothers not living with another working-age adult have experienced the biggest decrease in hours worked, and are least likely to have recovered, according to census data she analyzed.

Roxana Funes, a single mother of three in Los Angeles, first cut her hours and then quit her job at a Mexican lunch truck. Instead, she babysits for $100 a week and receives state assistance. She misses working full time and being able to support her family, and also had to delay getting her G.E.D. But she’s holding on to her goal of becoming a pediatrician’s assistant.

“It’s never too late, and I believe that with God’s help, I can do it,” Ms. Funes said.

Some fathers have also worked less. Jacob in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., who asked for work reasons that his last name not be published, is a consultant who measures his work day in 15-minute increments. With his young daughter at home and his wife working long days in Covid drug research, he cut his hours by 20 percent.

“I had no choice; we had no child care,” he said. “I would have to go over and check on her about every five minutes.”

He was able to resume his full workload only recently, when they moved to be in a place with open schools and enrolled their daughter in a school-run camp there.

Throughout the pandemic, though, mothers have done the bulk of the additional care — and are more likely than fathers to have their workdays interrupted. Morning Consult, in the survey for The Times, asked 725 mothers with partners at home whom their children first go to if they need help: the mothers, their partner, or someone else like a babysitter or relative. Nine in ten said they called for their mother.

One reason that many mothers became the default caregivers in the pandemic is they sought jobs with flexibility for child care emergencies, like a sick day home from school.

Meghan McGarry, the mother of a 7-year-old, has a home-organizing business in Houston, and her husband is an essential worker in oil and gas. Even as demand for home organizing surged, she cut her workdays from four to one, and doesn’t think she’ll be back at full capacity until fall.

“The career was chosen for its flexibility, knowing there would be ups and downs,” she said. “I just never expected a down would be 15 months long.”

Others fear the effects on their careers. Jaishree Raman, an I.T. director in Norman, Okla., just began a six-month unpaid leave, after three decades of work. Her father needs care, and the family isn’t comfortable hiring a home health aide during the pandemic. She’s also helping an adult son who is undergoing chemotherapy and has to be extra careful about avoiding coronavirus exposure.

“There’s this constant guilt, not feeling able to do everything I used to at work,” she said. “I couldn’t confidently ask for raises because I felt like the company was doing me a huge favor” by accommodating her caregiving demands.

She fears that a break will make it hard to re-enter: “What do I say? I can’t say mental burnout; it’s construed as a weakness.”

A variety of research has found that working at less than full capacity — like going part time or doing a job that doesn’t require the full extent of one’s skills — can have career repercussions, though not always.

To test this idea, David Pedulla, a sociologist at Harvard, submitted fictitious résumés to employers. Previous jobs listed on a résumé that were below an applicant’s experience or education resulted in callback rates that were about 50 percent lower.

He also tested the effects of putting part-time work on the fictitious résumés. Men were penalized for it as much as if they had been unemployed, but women mostly weren’t. In follow-up interviews with hiring professionals for his book, “Making the Cut,” Professor Pedulla said they assumed women had a reason for working part time — being mothers — while they assumed men were unambitious.

Yet research has found that part-time work hurts women in other ways, like earnings and promotions. In Europe, where employers are largely required to accommodate requests for part-time schedules, and it’s mostly women who choose them, they are significantly less likely than American women to reach high levels at companies. The main reason women are paid and promoted less than men in the United States is because of flexible hours and other demands related to motherhood — even before the pandemic.

“It is about Covid, but it’s also not,” said Ms. Rapier, the mother who left her high-level job for a less demanding one. “It’s about the lack of true equality.”

Ana Facio-Krajcer contributed reporting.

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Tagged careers, , pandemic, parents, stalled