The Work-From-Home Era Left Them Out
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Veronica wasn’t sure how the new disease she’d heard about on the news would affect her. It seemed unreal. She and her friends had just been joking about a game on the Google Play Store, in which the goal was to wipe out humanity with a deadly virus. “We joked about it. We were like … this is the apocalypse,” she said. “And then it happened.”
Veronica, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy, is a 39-year-old Latina single mom who works as a part-time teller at a small bank for $15 an hour near a Gulf Coast city in Texas. She said she remembers feeling left out when she saw people take advantage of new opportunities to work from home. “I mean, we couldn’t do that. People wanted their money. They got scared. So we stayed at work. We didn’t have a choice.”
In March 2020, when Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster, the bank that Veronica works for emailed new directives to combat the pandemic. They locked their lobby doors, closed the building to visitors, used drive-through banking only and avoided transferring personnel from one branch location to another. The employees like Veronica who had to show up for work were encouraged to disinfect surfaces and wash their hands frequently. Soon, they’d be encouraged to wear masks.
“I felt safer with the doors closed, but I still didn’t want to come,” she said. Her branch operates with about two to three people in it at any given time, but during the pandemic’s beginning, she felt there were components to the work that some of them could have done from home at least sometimes to minimize their risk of exposure. “But they weren’t really offering anybody remote [work], except upper management,” she said.
The doors stayed locked until fall 2020, when patrons could once more enter the lobby for regular banking, as if the pandemic were over. Veronica said people were supposed to wear masks, but the bank didn’t enforce the state’s mandate. “And they kind of told us not to make people feel like they had to,” she said. “So we chose our battles.”
Veronica lives with her retired mother and eight-year-old son and was worried about bringing COVID-19 home to them. She also smokes and was afraid that the virus could make her very ill. But neither she nor her son became sick. Instead, during the first summer of the pandemic, her mother contracted COVID-19, possibly through a friend, and she was hospitalized the week after July 4. Veronica had only two weeks of paid leave to take care of her hospitalized mom before she had to return to the office. (Veronica says she tested positive after her mother returned from the hospital, then tested positive a second time, during the delta wave, but she said she never had symptoms.) When her mother came home in August, Veronica was left alone to handle child care, taking care of her mother and continuing to report to work. Her son stayed with his father during the week, and Veronica felt awful about it because he’d always been with her..
Trying to balance caring for her mother while her son still had remote and in-person classes was overwhelming. Veronica was also scared her son would bring the virus home, so she decided to withdraw him from school and try homeschooling him, thinking it would be easier to manage. “I didn’t see any other choice at that time, and I’m glad that I did,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made it out.”
The weight of the pandemic’s changes and dangers have fallen unevenly on different groups in the United States, but women like Veronica are among those who shouldered the biggest burdens. Inequalities existed before COVID-19, of course, but in many ways they worsened over the past two years. One key division has been how our employers adapted to a deadly, rapidly spreading virus. For many workers, March 2020 marked the dawn of the work-from-home era, a change that seems mostly here to stay. But that’s not true for everyone.
The changes in remote work launched by the pandemic have been dramatic. The number of hours worked from home skyrocketed in 2020. An April 2021 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that telework accounted for only 5 percent of paid work hours before the pandemic, but between April and December 2020, it was about 50 percent. Even now, more than two years after the pandemic began, many workplaces still don’t have their entire staff reporting to an office five days a week, and many are unlikely to do so ever again. According to a working paper from Indeed.com and OECD, the share of job postings on Indeed that mentioned remote work roughly tripled during the pandemic — and was still 7.5 percent of job postings in September 2021.
But most Americans don’t have jobs in which telework is an option. There are fields where that’s not surprising: hospital jobs, factory jobs, jobs at grocery stores and retail outlets, jobs delivering food, among numerous others. There are other jobs, too, in which workers might have been able to work from home, but their workplaces lacked the technology or resources.
And it is women who are overrepresented in these jobs.
In March, the Women & Politics Institute at American University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation released a report showing that 49 percent of women likely to vote in the 2022 election felt burned out since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, among those making less than $50,000 a year, 67 percent said they were not working from home.
A recent report by the National Women’s Law Center had similar findings. Notably, it found that among adults making less than $15 an hour, which included 48 percent of women and 25 percent of men, women were more likely than men to say they’d lost or quit a job during the pandemic — 41 percent of women, 33 percent of men. Low-paid women were also twice as likely as women overall to have changed jobs during the pandemic.
I spoke to 19 women who fell into these categories and volunteered to be interviewed. Among them were women who chose to go into their offices because they felt safe with the precautions their companies had put in place, or because they felt it would be too hard to work from home, or because their duties made them key employees for their offices. But many others were required to report to an office if they wanted to keep their jobs. Some women felt that their safety concerns were respected, while others struggled to keep up with the latest public health guidance despite coworkers and bosses who did not. In general, the women whose experiences were better had workplaces that they felt prioritized their safety and were flexible and responsive to their needs.
Maria Saavedra Karlsson is a pediatrician who’d spent most of her career in children’s hospitals but began working at a nonprofit urgent-care clinic before the pandemic. Because she works with patients, she continued working in person. She told me about the eerie feeling of driving down empty highways that were normally crowded, but she said she knew her patients needed her.
Many of the clinic’s clientele were low-income Latino residents of Southern California, where Karlsson lives. She said that a lot of the clinic’s adult patients as well as the parents of their child patients had continued to work through the pandemic, and that case counts at the clinic remained high during almost every wave.
Yet Karlsson said the clinic’s management, who did not work on site, were reluctant to expand telemedicine, which almost all the clinic’s doctors agreed was better for everyone. Patients also preferred telemedicine, Karlsson said. When doctors were sick or in quarantine, they’d see clients remotely via telehealth technology, and the doctors found they could easily see 35 to 40 patients a day, comparable with the amount they could see in person. Patients were also safer in their homes.
Karlsson and her colleagues tried to convince the clinic’s management to do more telemedicine. “We tried to take a day off and actually just volunteer to do telehealth and show them how effective that was,” she said. “It didn’t work.” Instead, their patients had to come into the clinic, which she felt was unnecessary exposure for everyone. The stress of it encouraged Karlsson to leave the clinic and work as a telehealth doctor for an online company while she also started her own practice seeing patients in their homes, but she estimated that the move cost her about 75 percent of her income.
Karlsson made a choice to change careers, but other women’s work hours were reduced because their workplace’s needs shifted, or they lost their jobs and have been unable to return to the workforce. That impacts not only their earnings now but also their futures, as many are struggling to build up retirements or recover income lost over the past two years. According to the Women & Politics Institute/Barbara Lee Family Foundation report, 55 percent of female likely voters making less than $50,000 a year said that their personal financial situation was worse now than before the pandemic, including 27 percent who said it was a lot worse.
Others I spoke with were transitioning to new jobs not just because of the stresses of in-person work during a pandemic, but also because they felt a lack of respect from their bosses. Taylor Anne Barriuso is a 29-year-old white woman and an academic advisor at a state college in Iowa, and she said her administration required advisors like her to return to campus in the fall semester of 2020. “There were very few students on campus, and the meetings with students were almost exclusively virtual at that point,” she said, adding that many professors and other higher-up administrators were able to choose whether they worked or taught remotely.
The fact that she had to return to in-person work early isn’t the only reason she plans to leave her job — she also wants to attend graduate school for speech-language pathology — but it was a factor. “It did contribute to kind of an overall feeling of … micromanagement. … There was a kind of general feeling of distrust that we were still doing our jobs from home,” she said.
Women with people-facing jobs often found themselves with extra duties. Lindsay Ellis, a 35-year-old Black woman who works as a fitness director at a gym in a city in North Carolina and, like many, was furloughed early in the pandemic. When her gym opened back up in November 2020 and she returned to work, she had to enforce mask mandates that were frequently changing and often challenged by her clients. Ellis quickly became aware of how much sweat and heavy breathing filled the cycling room where she teaches classes.
Ellis thought she’d survive a COVID-19 infection but was worried about long COVID, which could impact her lung health for months and keep her from working. “I’m surrounded by hundreds of people a day, and members who are supposed to wear masks had quit [wearing them],” she said.
Overall, women staff most of the jobs that typically pay less than $10 an hour. One in three jobs held by women were deemed essential during the pandemic. And women, no matter their income level, were often left with the largest share of caregiving duties — whether it was taking care of elderly parents, children whose schools and daycares were shut down or, in many cases, both.
That said, as The New York Times found in a recent analysis, many mothers have remained in the workforce despite the challenges. There was one exception to this, however: mothers living with children under the age of five. Among them, the share who were in the workforce was down 4.2 percent between March 2019 and March 2022, indicating how uneven the burdens of the pandemic have been.
“The pandemic has been horrible, but there’s a couple of good things in terms of flexibility and women in the workplace. … [Low-paid women] haven’t been able to take advantage of any of that,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute. “They have absorbed all of the regular negativity of the pandemic and had none of the upside to it.”
Indeed, those who are still working from home like it. In the beginning of the pandemic, most people who worked from home had to because their offices closed. But now, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of American workers whose workplace was open and who were mostly or totally working from home said that a major reason they were teleworking was because they preferred it.
Women’s financial worries haven’t eased up, either. In the Women & Politics Institute/Barbara Lee Family Foundation report, inflation was an important issue for female likely voters who made less than $50,000 a year. “In many cases, they are the primary earners and their home,” Fischer Martin said.
Workers are seeking better circumstances and better pay as well. Ellis, the fitness director, said her workplace was still short-staffed and they’d had trouble hiring more people to fill the positions. Ellis herself is an hourly worker and spent the first part of the pandemic not working, worried that her employer wouldn’t cover her insurance while she wasn’t earning a paycheck. (They covered her.) She said the starting pay for instructors at her facility is $10 an hour.
When the gym reopened in fall 2020, its class offerings were reduced because management couldn’t find enough instructors, and she said it’s gotten even worse as some of the bankers and others who had been working from home for two years have begun to return to their downtown offices. “A lot of my members … want more hours,” she said. “They want more amenities.” They also want to go completely back to the way things were pre-pandemic, she said.
She tells them she wants to offer them more hours and classes, but that the gym is struggling to hire staff. “And then the response is, ‘Yeah, you know, people just don’t want to work nowadays,’” she said. She suspects they expect her to agree with them, but she doesn’t. “People want to work,” she said. “They just want to get paid fairly for the work.”
For others, coming out of the pandemic will remain difficult because many key services haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. For example, the availability of child care remains about 12 percent lower than it was before 2020, according to Alycia Hardy, a senior policy analyst with The Center for Law and Social Policy. That reduction in supply can raise the cost of child care, which was already out of reach for many families in lower income brackets. Additionally, child care itself is often a low-paying profession, so many of the providers may be seeking work elsewhere for the reasons described by Ellis. “We’ve seen this devastation on this already fragile system,” Hardy says. “What that really translates into for families is that half a million families are without child care.”
Many of the women I spoke to had changed jobs or were planning to. Others had changed their relationship to work. But many also felt that people in their circumstances needed more support. In the Women & Politics Institute/Barbara Lee Family Foundation report, a strong majority of women likely to vote in the 2022 midterms thought Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act should be expanded.
But if Congress’s failure to extend the expanded child tax credit — which may have been keeping 3.7 million children out of poverty — is any indication, we’re unlikely to see broad changes anytime soon.
Veronica, the bank teller, wants to make changes in her own life. Before the pandemic, she began working at the bank part-time so that she could take a course to become a court reporter and move into a better-paying field. But when the course shifted online, she felt she wasn’t able to learn as much as she had in the classroom. The extra burdens of her sick mother and homeschooled son made it untenable to balance her coursework and her job.
She wants to go back, though. She thinks it’s time for a career change. “It feels like I’m fighting for just $15 an hour,” she said. “It doesn’t feel fair, you know, after giving eight years to this place.”
She said she thinks there are more people in her position — people who’ve had some college but haven’t finished, who know they have skills but feel they’re undervalued in the workplace and want more flexibility in their jobs. “I feel like a lot of people are in my position,” she said. “They want the same thing. They wanted to feel valued.”