To say that the COVID-19 pandemic sent the globe into a frenzy is the understatement of the century. But beyond sparking an ongoing physical and mental health crisis, the pandemic has finally underscored the need for employers and policymakers to consider how our current system excludes parents, especially mothers, from the workforce.
Though common narratives about working mothers have often centered on middle-class white women working part-time for “fun money,” that vision has never fully encompassed the lived experiences of all working women, especially women of color, immigrant women and working-class women — all of whom historically worked out of necessity. In fact, 64% of mothers are the primary earners in their homes, even when they live with a partner, according to a December 2019 report from the Center for American Progress. This is especially true for Black and Latinx women who are respectively 84% and 60% more likely to be their household’s primary breadwinners.
Parents and other caregivers can only work when they have access to strong work-family supports, like affordable, quality childcare. But the skyrocketing cost of childcare makes it hard to secure for many families. And during the pandemic, access to affordable childcare became an all-out crisis.
Ayobami Bell Torrence, a Detroiter and working mother of two school-aged children, said her children were born in another state where she relied heavily on childcare that she often struggled to afford. But when her family returned to Michigan, she “felt like there were even less affordable options for quality child care here.” Torrence turned to her parents, who are healthy and retired, to help fill in the gaps. “I consider myself extremely blessed to have the help of my family and village that way,” she said.
Mothers and caregivers with fewer resources also bear the brunt of an inflexible labor market. Many women report wanting work that offers flexibility, but “flexible work” is often limited to managerial and white collar positions, which are more often filled by white women. And while flexible work implies “work from home,” which employers might assume is a family-friendly benefit, a February 2022 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics argues that the benefit can be debatable. Remote workers may avoid a commute, but they also “tend to work longer hours, which come as overwork, some uncompensated, blurring the boundaries of home and work.” Paying less and offering fewer benefits and less security, the landscape of part-time work doesn’t offer mothers much better options.
One organization exploring how offering more flexibility and support to employees can boost retention is Michigan’s Trinity Health, which participates in the HireReach program and created the RISEUp program in partnership with The SOURCE and West Michigan Works (funded in part with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation) to provide hiring assistance and wrap-around support to health care workers to help them stay employed and move into stable, full-time jobs.
“RISEUp takes an outside-in and inside-up approach to our workforce, and it’s going really well,” said Shana Welch, vice president of Talent Acquisition and Workforce Development Programs at Trinity Health. “We’ve got colleagues engaging in career coaching and exploring educational opportunities they didn’t know existed until recently. …What that means is as we are advancing colleagues inside our health system, we are then backfilling those roles by recruiting from communities of people who may not necessarily initially have the skillset we would look for when hiring.
But we’re recruiting them for our entry-level positions and then providing them access to training, career coaching and wrap-around supports to create a skilled workforce with this program. We’re looking to tackle generational poverty in our community.”
And the pandemic made clear that the inflexibility of employers has dire consequences for the U.S. labor market. As schools and daycares shuttered, millions of women dropped out of the workforce. For the most part, they haven’t returned, contributing to a national labor shortage. Scores of workers in Southeast Michigan also quit their jobs in the early days of the pandemic, with many citing unsafe working conditions, unvaccinated colleagues and unpredictable work schedules as their primary reasons, according to MLive. This helps explain why labor force participation among Black workers in America also plummeted during the pandemic, though that number is now improving.
So where does that leave employers hoping to keep their businesses open and staffed during a pandemic? Faced with worker shortages and stunted growth, some employers recognize the value in partnering with policymakers to encourage, create and promote initiatives that make it easier for parents to participate in the workforce.
One example is the Michigan Tri-Share Child Care program, which combines public and philanthropic dollars to reduce working families’ childcare costs by two-thirds of the sticker price.
La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is one woman leading this work. Her organization is calling on a coalition from across the state to commit to creating and sustaining viable pathways to work and support for all parents that are inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds.
“Luckily, our policymakers and the business community are looking at childcare as an economic issue and not just a family decision,” said Cheryl Bergman, CEO of the Michigan Women’s Commission, who is heavily involved in the Tri-Share Child Care program.
Leaders in the philanthropic and policy communities in Michigan are taking action to shift our collective thinking on how workplace policies that support families with children can contribute to a stronger economy.
The Kellogg Foundation will convene a roundtable on June 1 at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference to discuss “Advancing Equitable Workplace Strategies for Michigan’s Success” with business and public executives who have demonstrated a commitment to this work. They include Montgomery Tabron, Bergman and Lewis, and will be moderated by Candice Fortman, executive director of Outlier Media.
In addition to imagining how to scale programs like RISEUp and the Tri-Share pilot, the panel will discuss other potential policies and initiatives that acknowledge the collective responsibility society has to ensure that all workers, including mothers, can thrive.
“The past two years have been unimaginably difficult for many across our state,” said Tabron. “We have arrived at the moment where our collective imagination needs to become the blueprint for a more prosperous shared fate for all who call Michigan home. The theme of this year’s policy conference, ‘The Business Community’s Changing Civic Role in Polarizing Times,’ provides us an opportunity to reflect on how we have responded to the multi-layered pandemic and recommit to working in new ways, across geographies, sectors and aisles, to build a robust educational pipeline, widen economic opportunity for all and advance racial equity in our great state. How we come together now will determine what kind of future we can create for Michigan’s children, families and communities. Our children and our families need our support now more than ever.”