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COVID-19 reveals an already broken system for working families in America


For most American families, work-life balance was a struggle long before the days of social distancing and indefinite school closures. The difficulty many face in finding child care and elder care in this country has a measurable impact on people’s wages, mental health and productivity. Now, restrictions and closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic are compounding many of the problems modern families already faced, and the pressure on parents and caregivers is more intense than ever before.

As part of the 2020 Work + Life Report, conducted a survey of 1,254 full-time American workers in mid-February 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S. Even before the full effects of the pandemic were felt, here’s what survey participants shared:

  • More than 80% of participants reported missing work to care for a loved one at least a few times a year. 

  • Over 40% of parents and caregivers said they regularly scrambled to find last-minute care options for their loved ones.

  • 47% said they missed important family events due to work every couple of months, or as often as once per week.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71% of women with children and 93% of men with children are part of the U.S. workforce. Additionally, about 17.7 million people in the U.S. are caregivers for an older adult with a health or functional limitation. Of those who participated in the survey, more than 70% admitted they felt as though they were letting their loved ones down due to the demands of their jobs.

If you have children at home or care for an adult family member, the guilt, stress and worry you feel likely has only increased since COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. As the majority of states in the U.S. have been affected by some kind of stay-at-home order during the pandemic, many non-essential businesses have been at least temporarily shuttered, and many of those workers who can work from home are being asked to do so for the foreseeable future.

For many parents, this “new normal” means working a full-time job, homeschooling and not having access to day care, preschool or family help. Essential workers, like nurses and grocery store clerks, don’t have the option to stay home, and many have been left scrambling to find child care solutions. People who care for adult loved ones may be caught between the demands of their new work-from-home schedules and full-time caregiving. Because COVID-19 is especially dangerous for the elderly and those with underlying conditions, caregivers may also find themselves in the difficult position of trying to social distance from their loved ones while also lacking any safe, convenient alternative care options.

Even before COVID-19 struck, it was clear that telecommuting was not a meaningful solution to the problems faced by working caregivers. According to the survey, the number of people dissatisfied with their work-life balance stayed roughly the same whether employees had the ability to do their jobs at home or not. Now, the pandemic has created a situation in which workers are juggling even more mounting responsibilities than before with very few options for help or relief. Even worse, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 14.7% since the pandemic started, meaning some caregivers are now trying to care for family members without an income.

The solutions to many of these problems is still unclear, but the impact of COVID-19 is forcing lawmakers and employers to take a hard look at the difficulties faced by working Americans. The government has already provided loans to small businesses and economic impact payments to a large number of Americans, and legislators are currently working on new plans to provide additional relief. Some CEOs are foregoing their own pay to keep employees afloat, and a number of states have set up emergency child care programs

These options may help to address some families’ immediate needs, but as the pandemic continues, many will need longer-term solutions. We’re in the middle of a national emergency, but the problems faced by families during COVID-19 have been brewing for a long time. It’s more clear than ever before that the U.S. needs reformed employment and care policies that make allowances for the realities of family life and address the complex needs of American workers.