We're in the middle of a pandemic and a national state of emergency. Many parents are worried about their families getting sick, but many are just as worried about how they will stretch a paycheck if coronavirus concerns shrink it.
This week, the White House announced it has plans to send cash to American families and many moms are waiting to hear more about that help because they desperately need it.
According to research conducted by the American Payroll Association in 2019, 74% of employees in the United States would find it difficult if they missed a paycheck. And as daily life grinds to a halt during the pandemic many paychecks will be missed—and moms are more likely to be squeezed during this time of financial uncertainty.
Women are more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 survey by employment website CareerBuilder, which found 81% of women can't miss a paycheck without serious consequences.
The pandemic is highlighting the precarious financial situations of many mothers and the consequences of building an economy on the labor of underpaid women. It's also highlighting just how many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck—about 23 million people can't miss a pay period and might soon.
Multiple factors are contributing to this—wage stagnation and the gig economy are certainly at play—and during a pandemic, these factors put everyone at risk. People who are living paycheck to paycheck are also often lacking in sick leave. A stunning 75% of people who work in day care centers don't have access to paid sick days and 81% of food service workers don't either.
Motherly reader Megan is four months pregnant with her first child. She and her spouse work in the restaurant industry in the Southeastern U.S. and their unpredictable employment is increasing their anxiety during an already stressful time.
"Recently, our restaurant closed completely except for carry out, meaning the amount of hours I've been scheduled for has been way more than cut in half. I'm down to 9 hours a week from 40," she tells Motherly.
"My husband and I are trying to pay for my prenatal bills, save for the baby, save for school, pay rent, buy groceries—which is getting tricky because people are buying out stores but we can't afford to stock up on a month's worth of food— and build up a savings account all at the same time, but with half the amount of income. More than ever, I'm hoping this all blows over soon because not working full time is stressing me and my husband out," she explains.
Mothers are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck because mothers make less.
Women like Megan are more likely than men to end up in minimum wage jobs and even college-educated women are more likely to pick majors with lower salary potential. Occupations that employ more men tend to pay better because society undervalues women and the work they do and because society undervalues motherhood.
Women who earn low wages are twice as likely than men to hold a degree. Occupations that are feminized are often perceived as more flexible or offering a better work-life balance than male-dominated fields where 60 hour work weeks are the norm. And while some corners of the internet will blame women for this wage gap and gendered occupational segregation, but it's not as simple as picking a less lucrative trade or major. If too many women chose to go into a field that pays well, the scales tip.
As Sarah Green Carmichael explained in the Harvard Business Review, "Researchers have found that the pay gap is not as simple as women being pushed into lower-paying jobs. In effect, it is the other way around: Certain jobs pay less because women take them. Wages in biology and design were higher when the fields were predominantly male; as more women became biologists and designers, pay dropped. The opposite happened in computing, where early programmers were female. Today, that field is one of the most predominantly male—and one of the highest paying. The wage gap remains the widest at the top of the income ladder, where jobs tend to be male-dominated."
Mothers are more likely to work in caring occupations and in part-time or hourly positions with no safety net.
Motherly reader Ashley* is works in physical therapy in the Midwest. She's paid hourly and while the physical therapy clinics she works at are staying open during the pandemic, only salaried employers are working right now as the demand is lower than usual.
"We are to submit for paid time off or take it completely unpaid. I have no PTO available because I had a baby during the summer and was required to use all my PTO for that. So I'm not technically unemployed because the clinic is still open but I'm getting no hours due to not enough patients," she tells Motherly.
"Now I'm sitting [here] not working, not getting paid, trying to figure out how to continue to pay a day care for my 7-month-old and 3-year-old daughters to hold their spots so I can go back to work when I'm needed. I'm trying to meditate daily, stay positive, and savor these days with my littles but I am unsure what the future looks like for us."
High day care costs still hurt when the facilities are closed.
Like Ashley, Motherly reader Melanie is worried about day care payments right now.
"While my husband and I are fortunate enough to have jobs that allow us to work from home, we are struggling with the day care situation," she tells Motherly, explaining that while having more time with her 5-month-old child is nice, being charged for day care she can't use is frustrating. She's paying $300 a week right now, and if the day care is closed for more than a month it will reduce the payments to 75% of the usual cost.
"But this means we are struggling to work from home with a needy little guy while paying for nothing. We definitely do not have the extra funds, so it's causing a lot of stress on our end. Hoping something can be done soon so we can put that money into savings," says Melanie. "Would rather have it as an emergency fund instead of just flying out the window."
It is hard for many mothers to save for emergencies.
Melanie would rather be putting $300 a week into an emergency fund, and if families like her had access to affordable childcare they might have been able to do that before this pandemic hit. This would still be hard, but the financial pressures would be reduced.
But in a world where day care costs are astronomical but day care workers earn little, families on either end can't prepare for things like pandemics.
If our society had insisted on affordable childcare and fair pay for women, especially those in the caring professions, childcare workers who would not be in the dire straights they are in now that day cares are closing, forcing them to miss paychecks.
Unfortunately, we are realizing this too late. We didn't invest in these roles and now those who perform them are in crisis. Coronavirus is a health issue but it causing so many economic issues and so many personal financial crises for mothers.
Megan, the pregnant mom whose restaurant hours have been slashed, found a lost $20 bill under her bed this week and is feeling lucky, but new moms like her need more than luck. They need community and a country that supports them.
A vaccine won't be enough to inoculate our society from a repeat of this disaster. We also need to improve remuneration for women, value the caring professions and stop gendered segregation at work.
*name has been changed to protect privacy.