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Women edged out of workforce eye promise of Biden stimulus package

Jessica posed for a portrait with her daughter at their home. She is hopeful of returning to work after the pandemic.
Jessica posed for a portrait with her daughter at their home. She is hopeful of returning to work after the pandemic.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

President Biden’s sweeping stimulus proposal, his most ambitious plan to turn the country around, puts an extraordinary focus on getting women back to work, acknowledging the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on working mothers.

COVID-19 targeted the industries where women dominated — travel, leisure, hospitality, service. At the same time, it kept children home from schools and child-care centers, forcing parents — often mothers — to multitask. By the end of 2020, 4.3 million fewer women were working than had been in February, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Nearly half of those women — 2.1 million — have given up looking for work, compared to about 1.7 million men.

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Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal specifically aims to help women reenter the workforce by steering unprecedented resources to the child-care system. It also features a national vaccination program and a massive expansion of COVID testing for schools. The expensive proposal’s odds are uncertain in a fractured Congress — Republicans have put forward a much cheaper counterproposal — but it signals a paradigm shift long sought by advocates for women and early education.

“The president isn’t describing this as some individual problem,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “He’s understanding that it is key to the recovery, addressing this care crisis.”

The “invisible burden” of caregiving was made glaringly obvious by the conditions caused by the pandemic.

Jessica with her daughter at their home.
Jessica with her daughter at their home.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

When schools shut down last March, Jessica, a 32-year-old single mom in Boston, had to quit her job at Target, where she had just been promoted from cashier to supervisor.

“I didn’t want to lose that position,” she said. But with no one to watch her children, she had no choice. Jessica, who asked to be identified only by her first name, hasn’t been able to work since.

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Jessica has a 7-year-old son now attending a suburban school in person through the Metco program, but her 4-year-old daughter’s kindergarten classes are remote, which means Jessica is stuck at home.

Before the pandemic, Jessica had been saving money to buy a house with a backyard where her kids could play. Now she’s getting by on unemployment and food stamps; she turned to HomeStart for help paying rent, and Cradles to Crayons for clothes. At Christmas, she put off paying her cellphone bill to buy toys and relied on donations from Boston Community Pediatrics.

She’s hopeful Target will hire her back, even if it’s in her previous role as a cashier. Only then will she be able to dream of the future again.

“The only barrier that I have,” she said, “is school not being open.”

The inconsistency of school days is the “deciding factor” keeping many women out of work, said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“They can’t even plan long term ‘cause they don’t even know, are schools closed for the rest of the year? Will they reopen next month?” she said. “It’s really unpredictable.”

Biden aims to reopen a majority of K-8 schools in the first 100 days of his administration (by May 1). His stimulus plan devotes $130 billion to schools to reduce class sizes; to improve ventilation; to hire more janitors; to modify spaces; and to increase bus capacity to provide room for social distancing. The money would also help pay for summer school and other support to make up for lost learning time. (A group of 10 Senate Republicans this week floated a much smaller stimulus package that would devote $20 billion to reopening schools.)

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Pandemic conditions dealt a surprising reality check to modern perceptions of gender equality: It’s still often the mother who retreats from work to supervise children at home, in part because men tend to have higher salaries. According to census research released in August, among those not working, women age 25-44 were nearly three times as likely as men to cite COVID-related disruption of child care as the reason.

In Boston, about 11 percent of working mothers had to stop working or cut back their hours between March and December, according to the workforce solutions company ManpowerGroup.

The likelihood of being unemployed in December was much higher for Black women like Jessica (8.4 percent) or Latinas (9.1 percent) than for white women (5.7 percent).

And declining December jobs data, which was disappointing across the board, came with a stunning asterisk: All the jobs lost had belonged to women of color. An estimated 154,000 Black women left the labor force that month alone.

In Massachusetts, more than a quarter of Black and Latino workers are in the service industry. Jobs still have not returned to that sector, leaving a large share of women out of work for more than six months, according to a January Boston Foundation report.

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Biden’s plan includes safeguards for food security and housing support, a $15 minimum wage, higher unemployment insurance, paid sick days, and paid family leave.

The package also devotes $40 billion to child care — an unheard-of investment in a long-neglected industry.

Unlike K-12 schools, many child-care centers have no public financial support and rely solely on parents’ fees. As a result of parents losing jobs or pandemic restrictions limiting enrollment, centers have had to raise their tuition rates or risk closing.

“We are facing an acute, immediate child-care crisis in America, which is exacerbating our economic crisis,” Biden’s plan states. “If left unaddressed, many child-care providers will close — some permanently.”

Of the proposed child-care funding, $25 billion in grants would help stabilize child-care providers and $15 billion would go to child-care subsidies for families whose work was interrupted by the pandemic. The package also calls for larger child tax credits that could be awarded as refunds. (The Republican counterproposal offers $20 billion for child care.)

Luisa Rivera, 53, a mother who lives in in the Cathedral housing development in the South End, said a child-care subsidy could help.

Rivera has done cleaning and maintenance work at the Equinox gym near the Back Bay MBTA station for six years. She was furloughed last spring, went back to work in July, and was out of a job again in mid-December when Boston shut down gyms during the most recent surge.

Rivera is set to go back to work this week and hopes her nephew will be able to continue helping with her 10-year-old daughter’s online schooling. If he returns to his job, she isn’t sure what she’ll do. If she had the money, Rivera could hire a baby sitter to oversee her daughter’s remote classes, which she wants her to continue even if school fully reopens.

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But she is hopeful about positive changes under a new administration, she said in Spanish, through an interpreter.

“I have faith that with the new president,” Rivera said, “it will be better than it was before.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.