Patty Liu loves to solve problems. Throughout her professional life, she has focused on how to make modern life more environmentally sustainable — the ultimate puzzle. And like millions of other caretakers in the United States, she has also faced just how personally unsustainable it can be to juggle the simultaneous demands of family and work.

Liu, 38, had landed her dream job at the beginning of 2020, working with clients to keep solid waste out of landfills for an environmental consulting firm in Seattle. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down her children’s preschool and daycare, she and her husband, Alex, suddenly found themselves parenting two kids nonstop while working remotely. Liu said for two weeks she managed to tread water with office demands, completing about two-thirds of her project tasks. On March 23, a “really scary” email arrived from Liu’s office about an emergency meeting, and by the end of the day, she was unemployed.

She was not the only person let go that day, Liu said, and no one said that she was let go because she was a working mom — according to Liu, they gave no reason for her specific dismissal. But looking back, she said she suspected it may have influenced their decision. A colleague without children who had joined the firm several weeks after Liu had kept their job, she said.

WATCH: Raising the Future: The Child Care Crisis

Bias against caregivers working outside the home has existed for decades, and it is in particular “one of the most powerful drivers of discrimination against women in the work force,” said Liz Morris, the deputy director of the Center for Worklife Law at University of California-Hastings. Data shows that employers may write off female caregivers as being less committed to their jobs. As a result, Morris said, they are “less likely to be hired, less likely to be promoted, and they’re paid less.”. As a result, Morris said, female caregivers are “less likely to be hired, less likely to be promoted, and they’re paid less.”

“This problem is probably bigger than you realize,” Liu said. “Before I had kids, I knew these things were issues, but I didn’t know how bad they were because it didn’t affect me.”

Generations of workers have simply absorbed the chaos of balancing labor and child care, especially with babies and toddlers, said Jeannina Perez, national director for early learning at MomsRising, a grassroots group that advocates for women, mothers and families. Many women, like Perez’s mother, could not find child care, so they abandoned their ambition and left the work force to care for their children. That impacted Perez’s mother’s long-term earnings and retirement. Now, Perez said her mother watches her own daughter due to the lack of affordable and accessible child care so that Perez can pursue her own career. “Really, it’s people filling in for the failures of our system,” Perez said.

lower wages

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Even as little as two years ago, “nobody cared” that this was happening, said C. Nicole Mason, chief executive for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. But when much of the nation’s child care facilities suddenly evaporated at the start of the pandemic, the systemic inequities in the country’s child care system and what we expect from workers who are also parents became impossible to ignore, and the arguments for universal child care and giving working families more support found new momentum.

President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars to support caregiving needs in the U.S. — covering everything from high-quality child care to home health aides for people with chronic illness. In July, child tax credits advance payments gave millions of families a boost, especially those whose economic vulnerability grew even deeper during the pandemic. Policy watchers have hoped that maybe, eventually, the extra strains of the pandemic could be leading to something better.

But since the spring, the cold reality of political division and the stubborn inequities that disadvantage women have taken some of the shine off that hopeful thinking. Congress is at an impasse over how much it will spend on things like paid family leave, and how long it can continue support systems like the child tax credit. And in September alone, federal data suggest 350,000 women age 20 or older left the workforce. Since February 2020, an estimated 2 million U.S. women are no longer earning income — double the rate of men. Still, advocates say, basic protections could make all the difference.

“We’re in a different moment,” Mason said. “But what do we do with this moment and really get that change?”

Quantifying the disparities

Gender bias has punished women in the workplace for generations. Research on hourly workers shows mothers earn wages that are 5 percent lower (per child) compared to those who are not parents, often referred to as the “motherhood wage penalty”, while fathers tend to see their earnings grow, widening gender pay disparities.

“For those under the age of 35, the pay gap between mothers and nonmothers is larger than the pay gap between men and women,” according to authors of a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Sociology.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s low-wage workforce was two-thirds women, with more than half of Black women and nearly two-thirds of Hispanic or Latina women filling these roles, according to Camille Busette, who directs the Brooking Institution’s Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative. And far more women than men still encounter “a ‘broken rung’ at the first step up to manager,” the consulting firm McKinsey found in a 2021 report on women in the workplace. Since 2016, that has made it systematically more difficult for women to be promoted into leadership roles (and accordingly, in many cases, earn more money).

women unemployment

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

In the brutal math of household economics, all sorts of caregiving responsibilities are “handled by the spouse who earns less,” said economist Aparna Mathur, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School — and most of the time, that’s women. (While more research is needed about LGBTQ partnerships, some studies suggest that labor division is more equal, but there are nuances when it comes to specific tasks.)

Even before the pandemic, women in the U.S. spent 37 percent more time doing household work or providing care compared to men, a January 2020 report from Oxfam and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggested. “The systems we have created” mean that the bulk of unpaid caregiving falls on women and mothers, and that “is affecting work and life outcomes for these women and these families,” Mathur said.

The pandemic exposed how underappreciated — and broken — the nation’s child care system is, shattering the idea that child care is “everybody’s private challenge to navigate,” said Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care for the National Women’s Law Center. “Suddenly, everyone was in a child care crisis.” But the problem is not new. Lack of paid leave and affordable child care are “what’s actually holding women back,” Mathur said.

A 2015 study from the National Alliance for Caregiving said 39 percent of caregivers who left their jobs did so to spend more time caring for a loved one. During the pandemic, women in low-wage jobs were three and a half times more likely to quit work for reasons tied to the virus, such as caring for a loved one, Busette told journalists in April. Often when these women took time off, they lost wages, if not their jobs. For so many of these employees, logging into work remotely simply was not an option, Mason said.

Assumptions that women are less committed to their jobs have been especially cruel to essential workers, 60 percent of whom are women, Busette said. One of them is Donna Price, 49, a traveling nurse and single mother in Cleveland, Ohio. She works 72 hours per week while raising her 17-year-old son, as well as caring for her 75-year-old mother, who needs support after suffering a stroke.

Each subsequent COVID-19 surge swamped emergency rooms with patients, placing greater demand — and pressure — on nurses like Price to hold the health care system together. But at home, Price’s son, who has been diagnosed with autism, also needed help. The pandemic had shaken up his routine (wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, come home), and he began to contemplate suicide, Price said. She took eight weeks of unpaid time off of work to care for him, and her two adult children, a social worker and a police officer, helped her pay bills.

In February of this year, women’s labor force participation across the country sank to nearly 55 percent, a level not seen since the 1980s (before the Family Medical Leave Act was enacted in 1993, guaranteeing workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave under certain circumstances) and down from a high of 60 percent two decades ago.

Across the workforce, the pandemic is disproportionately impacting women more than men. Women are more burned out now than they were a year ago, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report, and at rates far higher than what men are reporting. A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll conducted last month found that while about a third of U.S. adults said they were more stressed now than they were before the pandemic, women were more likely than men to say their stress levels had increased.


Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

In September 2020, Patty Liu’s husband took her aside and asked if she was okay. The kids needed her constantly, and even finding time to go to the bathroom was a challenge.

“All of our supports were gone,” she said.

They decided to send their sons back to child care to preserve her mental health so she finally could focus on job hunting. But she was traumatized by what had happened to her. When she interviewed with prospective employers, she felt she had to conceal parts of her identity to be considered for an offer.

“I did not want to let them know I had kids,” she said. Even once she landed a job, Liu said she didn’t talk about having children until one day when her younger son got sick and had to stay home from daycare. When she told her coworkers, they supported her, Liu said.

Piecemeal protections

Decades of federal law dictate that employers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex or against pregnant people. Under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, employers must pay employees the same wages, including bonuses, insurance and other benefits, if they practice the same skills, responsibility and working conditions — regardless of gender. Almost five decades later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act launched a new standard of worker protection against discrimination based on not only wages but also “job classifications, career ladder or other noncompetitive promotion denials, tenure denials, and failure to respond to requests for raises,” according to the federal Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission. It was one of the first bills former President Barack Obama signed after taking office in 2009.

And yet in 2020, women still earned 84 cents for every dollar a man did, according to a May report from the Pew Research Center, and the gender wage gap has remained fairly stable for roughly 15 years. And there is no uniformity in how people access support like paid leave. So workers, particularly in low-wage jobs, are exposed to life and all its risks without good options, Mathur said. Research has shown disadvantaged workers, including those earning low wages, tend to benefit the most when employers expand paid leave, she said. During the pandemic, about three-quarters of U.S. workers in the private sector had access to paid sick leave, according to a report published this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 23 percent were granted paid family leave. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act offered a temporary fix for some employees last year, offering 10 weeks of additional family leave at two-thirds pay if they needed to care for kids because COVID had shuttered school or daycare. In recent years, a handful of states, including California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have passed paid leave protections for workers, but much of the country is covered by a patchwork of policies riddled with loopholes.

In June 2020, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the “Protecting Family Caregivers from Discrimination Act,” a nationwide bill to protect caregivers against workplace discrimination, such as losing a promotion or failure to hire. The bill would have created more uniform protections for workers, regardless of what is offered by their employers or states. But despite mounting talk of the need to support workers, the bill hasn’t moved in Congress. In a written statement to the PBS NewsHour, Booker said it is “imperative” that the nation support workers so “they can continue to care for their loved ones while also balancing work.”

“Being a caregiver is an honorable calling and a moral responsibility, and punishing employees for caring for their loved ones is unfair,” Booker said.

During the first several months of the Biden administration, advocates for greater workplace equity were armed with data, public support and momentum for change and proposals mapping out how to get there, Mason said.

The White House’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan was designed to boost new spending in government programs in ways that were often compared to the New Deal. For many, the promise of financial support offered a glimmer of hope that life did not have to amount to an endless series of impossible choices between family and work — that the nation may finally recognize the value of caregiving.

But after months of political haggling, Mason said, “one of the things that’s on the chopping block are all the investments in care.”

The White House and Democrats in Congress are now trying to scale back the scope of what was once a $3.5 trillion proposal to get buy-in on Capitol Hill, which will likely mean picking and choosing between some of the child care and paid family leave programs or reducing their scope to bring down the price tag by a trillion dollars or more.

Mathur said the administration bundled too much together in its plan to earn ample political support. Child care and elder care “are all different pieces of the same puzzle,” she said. But it is important to “understand where the gaps are, and who are the people falling through those gaps,” Mathur said.

To get legislation passed, lawmakers need to develop and target permanent solutions more efficiently beyond short-lived COVID-19 relief measures, she said, as these old problems have proven they will not fix themselves.

“We don’t need temporary policies to address it,” Mathur said. “We need federal policies that are available across the country.”

Paid parental leave needs to be guaranteed for all workers (the U.S. is the only developed nation without such protections), and federal regulations should “meet a basic level of need,” according to Mathur, and from there, states can experiment. But trying to do too much also runs the risk of not targeting the right groups of people, Mathur said.

“The only issue with trying to do too much is that it’s not sufficiently targeted,” Mathur said. “You might be sending money to people who don’t need it.”

And if nothing is done? These issues will remain and caregivers, especially women and women of color, will be forced to carry the consequences.

Considering the choices she has been forced to make for her own household, Price is not hopeful that change will come. At this point in her life, there is no room for error — she can either work her hours, take unpaid leave or walk away from her job. But none of those options fit her family and its needs. More flexibility, including paid leave, would help her household get by, she said. Before the pandemic, Price said employees could drop off their children into daycare or school and go through their work day like anybody else on the job. But the virus snatched away those easy choices and routines, and many workplaces have not moved fast enough to implement policies, like paid leave, that acknowledge these dramatic changes. As much as people who care for loved ones have been forced to reshape their lives during the pandemic, Price said the rules should also respond to this new reality.

Employers should “not just have empathy for the employees who are going through difficult changes, but making it to where they don’t have to choose between caring for their loved ones and going to work,” she said.