The COVID-19 pandemic forced many parents to leave the workforce to provide direct care and education for their children. More than 5 million children under the age of five in America live in a single-parent household, and 19% of Colorado households are headed by a single mother. As schools shifted to remote learning and child care centers closed, these parents, already the sole care and financial provider, took on new roles: educator, health care provider, and technical support, among others.
In the early months of the pandemic, over 3 million mothers with school-age children left active work. Many of these departures happened in service industries, which are largely comprised by women of color. Even before the crisis, mothers of color earned less while working in stressful, high-contact service positions.
The heavy burden felt by single parents only worsened during the pandemic. Opportunity gaps widened for women in the workforce and for the overall well-being of single-parent families. Research by the University of Oregon found increased emotional distress for single parents with children under five. Many of these families are also struggling to pay for food, housing, and utilities.
Much of the economy has reopened, along with child care providers, giving single parents the chance to get back to work. However, mothers may face stigma with potential employers, and with more than a million mothers still out of work, some worry the pandemic has set them back from years of progress. One single parent shared in our family survey: “I am…nervous when I mention that I have a child during interviews. Employers know that school schedules are not concrete right now.”
The pool of unemployed single parents should be viewed as an untapped resource. Rather than dismissing their needs, employers can find ways to support single parents as they seek to reenter the workforce. This begins with creating flexibility in the workplace – something many employers successfully implemented during the pandemic. Employers can offer alternative schedules, child care considerations, or other benefits. As an example, recent Colorado legislation will also provide matching grants to employers that build on-site child care facilities.
The single parent workforce is essential to sustainable economic growth. Policymakers and employers can look to innovative employment practices developed during the pandemic to find long-term, creative solutions to retain working parents and help others get back to work as the economy recovers.