One in four women are considering either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely, according to McKinsey & Co.’s 2021 report on Women in the Workplace, and child care considerations, particularly during the pandemic, are a leading factor.
It’s a profound crisis, the report explains: “Companies risk losing women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”
Scott Colbert, St. Louis-based chief economist with Commerce Trust Co., said the United States is experiencing a disappearing workforce, and that’s a phenomenon with a lot of causes, but disproportionately, the eligible workers who are leaving their jobs are women.
The labor force participation rate for women with children under age 18 is falling, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, which pegged that rate at 71.2% in 2020, down from 72.3% the year before.
Colbert cited BLS data in noting that prior to the pandemic, 63.8% of the population that was eligible to work was working. Today, 61.7% of the eligible population is working.
A decade and a half ago, almost 67% of the population worked, Colbert said.
“While people have been dropping out of the workforce, disproportionately they have been women, and especially women with children,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, women bore a significantly greater responsibility for child care than men, according to the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California. Its study found one-third of working mothers in two-parent households reported they were the only ones providing care for their children, compared with one-tenth of working fathers.
Colbert said families are doing the math and finding that, for some, child care expenses are unsustainable.
“Child care costs were expensive before COVID,” he said. “You can see the direct trade-off: I spend this much money on child care, and here’s what I’m making at work. It materially doesn’t make a lot of sense to go to work.”
Colbert said there are some not-so-obvious costs to women leaving the workforce.
“There’s a subtle cost to women who are confronted with this, because by stepping out of that workforce three, four, five years, they’ve also lost three, four, five years of tenure in the business,” Colbert said. “There’s a huge cost to the country in the aggregate. We don’t think much about that financial yes-no decision and the long-term impact it has on a woman’s career.”
A working professional who has kids and drops out to care for them has a hard time regaining that ground upon her return, Colbert said.
“You know she’s not coming back to the same position, and that’s even if she’ll find a job,” he said.
Grappling with care
Springfield’s largest employer, CoxHealth, has tried to address its workers’ need for child care.
CoxHealth has three facilities, one each at Cox Medical Center South, Cox North Hospital and Cox Medical Center Branson. The Cox South location is open seven days a week, 6 a.m.-midnight, including most holidays. Since hospitals operate around the clock, workers require child care accommodations after the conventional workday is through.
“You have that with nursing, and with all hospital departments,” said Karrie Ridder, director of CoxHealth learning centers.
The three facilities combined are licensed to care for 477 children ages 6 weeks to 12 years. CoxHealth employed 12,253 in 2021.
“We take care of a lot of kids, and there’s always a need for more,” Ridder said.
According to Ridder, the CoxHealth centers’ waiting list numbers in the hundreds.
“Our waiting list is unbelievable, especially for infants and toddlers,” she said.
Licensure for that youngest group requires a ratio of one caregiver for four children, so not as many slots are available, she said.
Many nurses take advantage of the services, and so do doctors and support staff, according to Ridder. She said her phone rings daily with people looking for a space for their children.
“Springfield’s got a lot of centers that have closed,” she said. “Some of them have closed and haven’t reopened. We get calls from people trying to find child care.”
The BLS noted child care was not available for 2.7 million children under age 6 who needed it prior to the pandemic, and a study in the education publication Hechinger Report noted massive changes are needed in state and federal child care policies to bring back thousands of child care businesses that closed during the pandemic.
“If we don’t have child care, or if parents don’t feel comfortable with child care, they’re not going to be able to focus on their job,” Ridder said. “Child care is so very important for a lot of things, including the economy. Parents can’t work if we can’t provide child care.”
At Springfield Public Schools, John Mulford, deputy superintendent for operations, acknowledged the problem families face with trying to find safe and affordable care for their children.
“There’s no doubt that parents rely on schools and school being in session to essentially meet the demands of child care,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not child care – we’re a school – but public schools are an option to families where they’re not having to pay out of pocket.”
When SPS was awarded COVID-19 federal relief funds, including a $1.2 million grant from the county, the board focused its attention on how to help families, including those with child care needs.
“One of the visions our board had in using the COVID relief funds was how can we better support families,” he said. “Before- and after-school care was part of that – providing funding to support families who need that.”
That resulted in the SHINE program, through which SPS partnered with four agencies – Boys & Girls Club of Springfield Inc., the Springfield-Greene County Park Board’s SPARC program, Springfield Dream Center and the Ozarks Regional YMCA – to provide needed care, including scholarships to students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Families have faced an additional care challenge with the rollback of the district’s transportation program in November, cutting transportation to 1,500 students, a situation brought about by a driver shortage, Mulford said. The board recently voted to raise the hourly wage for bus drivers to $20 from $14.50, and applications are coming in, Mulford said.
Mulford said pressures that affect workers also affect the district, which is the fourth-largest employer in Springfield. Teaching remains a woman-dominated field, so economic pressures that affect women have a particularly strong impact on schools. The applicant pool is down, according to Mulford.
“What we’re seeing is that the number of applicants just isn’t there that used to be there,” he said.
Colbert said the issue is widespread.
“All employers are grappling with the fact that the unemployment rate’s come crashing down,” he said. “They need to ask themselves what they can do to provide as much flexibility as they can to meet workers’ needs.”
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