BY ANGELA RACHIDI
Congress responded to the arrival of the pandemic on US soil in spring 2020 by passing sweeping economic relief measures, including policies directed toward supporting the needs of families. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act guaranteed paid time off for workers employed by small businesses, for both medical and childcare-related reasons. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act increased funding for the Child and Dependent Care Block Grant by $3.5 billion, which gave states funding to help stabilize their childcare markets.
We commissioned a survey of working-age adults between July 23 and August 7, 2020 to better understand how the pandemic affected families and assess the federal policy response. Administered by NORC at the University of Chicago, the survey asked about paid leave and childcare during the pandemic. I summarized survey results on paid leave and childcare in a new report, but here are five of the most important takeaways:
1) Large inequities by household income emerged when looking at access to paid leave during the pandemic.
Workers from low-income households reported lower access to paid leave from their employers compared to those from higher-income households, even though they had similar rates of overall leave-taking. Further, one in four workers from low-income households identified an unmet need for leave (paid or unpaid) since the start of the pandemic, compared to less than 18 percent of workers from middle- and higher-income households. Taken together, these results suggest the policies in place during the pandemic failed to provide low-income workers with sufficient access to paid leave.
2) Many workers from low-income households did not take leave due to an inability to afford a loss of income.
One of the goals of the Families First Act was to provide workers who could not access paid leave from their employers with an opportunity to take it without concerns about lost income. Our survey results indicate that the loss of pay associated with taking leave remained a concern for many low-income workers, which suggests federal legislation did not reach its intended goal, either because it did not cover enough employers or because federal supports remained unknown to many workers.
3) Unmet need for leave and childcare difficulties remain an issue for many working parents.
Survey results also revealed several challenges for parents as they try to balance work and caretaking responsibilities. Almost 30 percent of working parents expressed an unmet need for leave since the pandemic started, compared to 16 percent of childless adults who expressed the same. Childcare challenges were also widespread. Among parents of young children (0-5) who used childcare prior to the pandemic, 45 percent reported it was very or somewhat difficult to meet their childcare needs at the time of the survey.
4) Childcare challenges and school closures have had a tremendous negative effect on the employment of mothers.
Caretaking responsibilities throughout this pandemic have disproportionately affected the employment status of mothers — compared to childless adults and fathers. Among mothers of young children (0-5) who used childcare before the pandemic, only one in two were working full-time at the time of our survey compared to three-fourths before the pandemic started. Similarly, the full-time work rate for mothers of school-age children was 20 percentage points lower at the time of our survey compared to before the pandemic started, while fathers saw a 10 percentage point drop.
5) Congress should prioritize low-income workers and parents in the next round of pandemic-related economic relief.
Economists largely agree that federal relief efforts passed in spring 2020 reduced hardship among US households. They also agree that Congress should pass another round of relief as the pandemic continues. The results of this survey show that a large unmet need for paid leave remains among low-income workers and working parents, while childcare challenges continue to affect the employment status of mothers negatively. Prioritizing these two groups with additional funding in future rounds of federal relief will address a critical gap in the efforts passed last spring.