Wisconsin childcare crisis
(Graphic by Morgaine Ford-Workman)

More than 2 million American women have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, a reflection of the country’s ongoing childcare crisis.

Jillynn Niemeier of Monroe loved her job. She was a social worker who helped adults with developmental disabilities find employment in their community.

“I really, really enjoyed helping an individual find something that they were successful at,” she said. “And showing businesses that these people are very productive and they can actually make and they can do what you can do or what you ask them to do.”

And if she had been able to find child care last summer, that is what she would still be doing. 

“I left a job that I loved and didn’t really want to leave,” she said. “But I didn’t see any other option.”

In July, Niemeier and her husband learned their childcare provider was closing. Her husband is a teacher, so they had until the end of August to find child care for their 3-year-old and 11-month-old daughters.

They couldn’t find someone in time, so they had to make a hard decision. Niemeier’s husband earns more than she does and the family receives health insurance through his job.

Niemeier is not alone. The economic downturn from the pandemic disproportionately affected women compared to men; the National Women’s Law Center found that between August and September 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce, compared to 216,000 men. As of January a total of 2.3 million women were estimated to have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, compared to 1.8 million men. Only 57% of working-age women are participating in the workforce, the lowest that rate has been since 1988. 

And while it’s impossible to know how many of them left jobs due to child care, there is evidence that mothers were hit particularly hard. According to the US Census Bureau, last spring 3.5 million mothers with school-age children went on either paid or unpaid leave, lost their job, or left the job market, meaning they were not actively searching for employment. In March 2021, the bureau found that 10 million mothers—a third of all mothers with school-age children—were not working.

Those numbers might not even include women like Niemeier, who decided to become a licensed family childcare provider in order to earn some income while caring for her own children, though it’s not as much as what she was earning before. And while she is enjoying spending more time with her children, she is concerned about how this time away will affect her career when she returns. 

“My career has been put on hold,” she said. “When I finally possibly do go back into the workforce doing what I was doing before, I’ll probably be starting right back at the beginning and having to work my way up the ladder again.”

RELATED: Wisconsin Is In a Childcare Crisis. The Pandemic Hasn’t Helped.

One reason women were affected more than men is because more women work in the service industry, where more businesses had to close or cut staff. Another is due to the wage gap between men and women. 

Before the pandemic, the median salaries for men and women with the same jobs and qualifications was almost equal, with women earning 98 cents for every dollar their male colleagues earned. But the pay gap overall for men and women was still sizable, with women taking home 82 cents for every dollar men earned. This wage gap, called the opportunity pay gap, reflects the low pay in the industries that disproportionately employ women. 

Pay disparities widen in the salaries of women of color compared to white men. The widest disparity is with Indigenous women, who earn 69 cents for every dollar a white man earns. That gap has widened because of the pandemic; pre-COVID-19, that pay gap was 75 cents for every dollar.

The gap is also wider for older women. For men and women ages 20 to 29, the overall pay gap is 85 cents for every dollar; for 30-39, it is 81 cents for every dollar and for 45 and older, it is 72 cents for every dollar. One explanation for this is that women are promoted at a slower pace than men, and as men and women move up the corporate ladder, the wage gap widens. 

Another is what’s called the “motherhood penalty.” One study found that for women under 35, there was a wider wage gap between women who were mothers and women who were not than there was between men and women. Two other studies found that American mothers on average suffer a 5% wage penalty for each child they have. No penalty was found for men who are seen as good fathers, because being a good father “is not seen as culturally incompatible with being a good worker.”

While there is some research that shows mothers are able to catch up somewhat with their childless colleagues once their children are older, the lag time can have serious consequences for their long-term finances

The Center for American Progress developed a calculator to show how much money women and men stand to lose by taking time off. For example, if a 30-year-old woman earning $50,000 a year decides to take five years off to care for her children, she stands to lose $250,000 in lost wages, another $212,281 in wage growth and $191,870 in retirement savings, a total of $654,150.

There is also the immediate impact on their family’s finances. The Census Bureau found that from November to February, 49% of Wisconsin families reported they had lost income since the pandemic began in March; 28% said they had fallen behind on their rent payments and 32.8% said they had had difficulty paying their household bills that week. 

The impact of women’s inability to access child care isn’t confined to their personal finances or their family’s finances, but it affects the economy as a whole. ReadyNation, a business advocacy group, found in a 2019 study that the lack of childcare access cost the US $57 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue. One of ReadyNation’s board members, JD Chesloff, wrote in a June 26 blog post that the childcare sector is “necessary” to restore the economy.

“Prioritizing child care for essential personnel and for the general workforce will be crucial in the coming weeks and months,” Chesloff wrote. “We must use this time to reimagine the child care sector and elevate it as an essential component of the infrastructure necessary for our economy to thrive.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that $39 billion of American Rescue Plan funds will go toward stabilizing the childcare industry and on Wednesday Biden announced in his speech before Congress his ambitious American Families Plan, which would implement two years of public preschool education nationwide for 3- and 4-year-olds and guarantee that  low- and middle-income families pay no more than 7% of their income on child care for children under 5 years old.

The final segment of this series on child care will look at what can be done in the short- and long-term to rebuild the childcare industry and make it sustainable.