When the coronavirus began spreading in New Jersey and schools were suddenly shuttered in March, Joshlyn Adams was able to keep working.
As an executive assistant at a nonprofit organization in Newark, Adams went into the office throughout the spring and summer. Her husband’s work -- as an audio and video engineer -- slowed and the kids were either watched by him or their grandparents.
But when her three kids officially resumed their charter school classes via remote learning in late August, Adams was forced to take emergency childcare leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, known as FMLA. She is receiving 12 paid weeks of job-protected leave, thanks to combination of federal and state labor laws.
However, the leave will end in November.
“I shouldn’t have to choose between my job and my children,” she told NJ Advance Media. “It should’ve never come to that.”
Adams isn’t alone.
More than one in 10 (14%) of parents of young children in New Jersey said they quit their jobs to help with childcare since the pandemic began, with women six times more impacted than men, according to a new Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released last month.
The poll, conducted with support from The Nicholson Foundation, surveyed more than 900 parents of infants and toddlers in August 2020.
It also found 17% of parents were forced to reduce their work hours, while 8% took an unpaid leave of absence.
While specific to New Jersey, the poll underscores a broader reality women are facing across the nation: Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household duties, despite massive changes to the education and childcare system.
The pandemic has also exacerbated that more so along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Experts say Latina and Black women are hardest hit in terms of job losses and, economically, white women are disproportionately able to afford to stay home during this pandemic.
According to the latest jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 865,000 women left the workforce from August to September, compared to 216,000 men. The U.S. added 661,000 jobs last month, meaning more women left the workforce than new jobs were added.
The existing inequalities that still affect many women were not created by the pandemic, but were further revealed by the crisis, experts said.
“Many daycare centers still have not reopened and of course, in New Jersey, most schools are now online this fall,” Yana Rodgers, the faculty director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, said.
“So parents are scrambling and that burden still disproportionately falls on women,” she added.
Radhika Balakrishnan, an economist and professor at Rutgers University, said the pandemic has revealed the relationship between paid and unpaid work.
When schools closed down, it was often the mothers who took care of the kids at home. Balancing childcare, education and their own work is a struggle for many working mothers, she said.
“They’re either quitting their jobs or they’re going crazy,” quipped Balakrishnan, the faculty director of the university’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership.
'I didn’t plan on becoming a teacher’
As an administrative worker at a small, family-owned distribution company, Stacy Gonzalez loved her job. She was close to her kids' school in Hamilton Township, enjoyed her coworkers, and commuted only five minutes from home.
But once schools shut down, Gonzalez’s employer -- considered an essential business --remained open. Unable to work due to childcare, she received payments from the extended FMLA act, but after the 12 weeks were up, she still couldn’t return to work.
Her job told her they couldn’t hold her position any longer, so Gonzalez had to quit her job.
Now she helps her children, who are ages 3, 7 and 12, with remote learning. Her oldest son, who has ADHD and autism, also has an IEP, or individualized education program.
“I didn’t plan on becoming a teacher,” she said in an interview. “I mean, teachers are doing the best they can, but it’s rough.”
Gonzalez’s husband works the third shift, overnight, as an engineer for NJ Transit. It wasn’t practical, the couple decided, for him to help the kids with online schooling, as he typically returns home from work around five in the morning.
The district plans to return to hybrid learning this month, but even if that happens, the schedule’s inconsistency -- alternating in-person days in school depending on the week -- will make it difficult to return to work, Gonzalez said.
“So how do I plan my future to ever return to work because you know, it’s not like I can say ‘I can work every Tuesday and Wednesday’ because they’ll be in school, because the following week it may be I’ll work Monday and Friday,” she said.
“I’d have to have a super, super flexible company willing to employ me,” she added.
Not able to quit
Some women don’t have the privilege of quitting their jobs.
Nayeli, a mom of four in Passaic, took a job at a laundromat during the weekends and Mondays a few months ago. But when online therapy started for her 3-year-old, who has autism, and remote school for her 12-year-old, she couldn’t work Mondays any more.
She was told she can keep working weekends until a replacement is found for Mondays, but once they are, she’ll be let go from the job entirely.
“I’m going to have to find another job at night or another job that’s Saturday or Sunday,” Nayeli, an undocumented resident who asked to only be identified by her first name, said in an interview in Spanish.
“During the day, it’s necessary for me to be here,” she said. “My baby has trouble staying still during his therapy session.”
Nayeli’s husband still has his job in landscaping, but the family relies on her income as well-- since the start of the pandemic, they’ve sometimes depended on food banks, and stopped eating breakfast some days.
Remote learning will continue until the end of October, the district said, but Nayeli’s unsure of her job status even if her children switch to a hybrid schedule.
“It’s been exhausting, to think that I didn’t know this was going to happen,” she said.
‘I would never choose to leave my job’
Judi Errico loved her job in geriatrics occupational therapy at a nursing home rehabilitation and assisted living facility.
For the past seven years, Errico enjoyed working with her patients and was always reliable, never taking time off or complaining about hours, she said.
But when her fourth-grade twins started remote school in Monroe Township in Gloucester County on Sept. 8, Errico couldn’t both work and supervise her kids' schooling. She said she tried to work out the situation with her manager, offering to take part-time hours instead.
Two weeks later, she was informed her job was terminated.
As a single mom, Errico used up her FMLA back in March, but it only lasted through June. With her job gone, she has also now lost her health insurance.
“I don’t want to be an unworking person. I’ve never not worked,” Errico told NJ Advance Media. “I would never choose to leave my job. I would’ve stayed... as long as I can.”
She believes working parents have had no job protection since the start of the pandemic.
“That’s my major problem, is that they never went back and said, 'You know what, let’s extend (FMLA) for people until your schools open, let’s keep your job,’” Errico said. “Do they want everyone to be unemployed? It’s horrible.”
“I just feel like that for that little bit of time -- if my job had waited a little bit -- or if I just had a little protection, once they opened, let me just come back,” she added. “There was no thought for working parents.”
Push for paid leave
Part of alleviating the burdens of childcare and household duties on women -- and preventing more women from leaving the workforce -- includes rethinking the economy’s structure, Balakrishnan, the Rutgers economist, said.
“People say, ‘Are we going to go back to normal?’ but normal was never very good for women,” she said.
National paid leave for childbirth would be a “no brainer,” she said. Many countries have strong social protection systems already in place, she added.
In New Jersey, there is emergency childcare leave due to the pandemic.
The emergency childcare leave -- under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act -- provides 12 weeks of job-protected leave for employees in New Jersey if their child’s school is closed or their childcare provider is unavailable, due to the coronavirus.
In general, the first two weeks are unpaid, and the remaining 10 weeks are paid in New Jersey. But both emergency childcare leave and emergency paid sick leave expire on Dec. 31, 2020.
“There’s no vaccine for an economic crisis, which is also what we’re in,” Balakrishnan said.
“And I worry sometimes that so many people are fixated on the pandemic, and as soon as we get the vaccine, we’re all going to be back to 2019,” she added. “Well, 2019 wasn’t good for a lot of people.”
However, some changes are being proposed at the state level.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D- Essex), head of the Senate Education Committee, recently introduced two bills to help parents and teachers with both childcare and education.
One bill (S2898) would create an emergency child care assistance program for school staff and administrators. Another bill (S2899) would require the Department of Education to create a remote instruction facility program for students.
Ruiz said she’s “lucky” because as a working mother herself, she and her husband take turns with childcare. But others, she acknowledged, don’t have that option.
“A lot of other people don’t have that, but beyond, it’s working from home and also being the teacher aide as a parent that it is a complete juggle, and a struggle,” she said in an interview. “It’s a huge balance.”
Policies like paid parental leave, which many countries have, would help, she said. The U.S. currently does not have mandatory paid parental leave.
“But New Jersey’s making inroads, we’re recognizing that there’s deficiencies and we’re creating policies to bridge the gap,” Ruiz said. “And we need to do these things because it’ll be interesting to see post-pandemic, when this is over, how the workforce has changed.”
For Adams, the nonprofit employee in Newark, her job’s future remains uncertain once her FMLA runs out. She’s expected to return to work in late November.
She said she’s continuing remote schooling for her kids, even if their charter school switches to a hybrid schedule, because of health concerns -- both of her daughters are asthmatic, and her youngest daughter has been hospitalized twice with the flu.
“It is frustrating because I feel like we started off being really mindful of parents and families,” she said, of the pandemic’s beginning, “but I don’t feel like that has continued.”
NJ Advance Media staff writer Sophie Nieto-Munoz contributed to this report.
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