Work, Motherhood, & Pandemic

UPDATED February 2, 2021 — The Hennepin County Commissioners voted unanimously to pass a Board Action Request (BAR) that will allow extension of COVID Child Care Leave for an additional 160 hours.  Although it does not extend at full pay, the BAR allows full recovery or forgiveness for up to 240 hours of negative leave balance.  Negative leave balance can be used to backfill the 1/3 in pay that is not covered by the child care leave.

According to Ronisha Buckner, mother of one:  “We are pleased that Hennepin County heard the voices of our workers and took action on the concerns we brought forward by passing this BAR today.” 

AFSCME parents and children. Photo Ali Fuhrman

Deb Konechne is speaking into a microphone. “We are trying to work full time, while at the same time managing distance learning and teaching, emotional support, and caregiving for our children. This is an impossible situation.” It is mid-December and weak noon light casts a long shadow over the small crowd gathered in the Government Center Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.

Konechne hands off the mic and returns to the group of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) members, a trade union representing employees of Hennepin County. The women begin a chant: “working mothers need relief, extend COVID parental leave.”

In November 2020, AFSCME began calling on Hennepin County to utilize $6 million dollars of the county’s contingency funds to offer childcare leave at full pay to employees. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which extended time off at two-thirds pay to working caregivers, expired on December 31.

Konechne, a public health nurse, explains that even when federal paid leave was an option, many members could not afford to take it because losing one-third pay could mean losing housing or food. Now that the family leave is no longer an option, Hennepin County workers, who are predominantly women, are desperate.

“We are at risk of losing housing, we are at risk of our vehicles being repossessed, we are at risk of having a nervous breakdown,” AFSCME member Regina Andrews told Minnesota Women’s Press. As a single mother of three children aged nine, 14, and 15 — and a Human Services Representative with the county, Andrews cannot afford to take leave, but she is juggling an 80-hour work week and kids who are distance learning full-time.

Hennepin County workers are not eligible for emergency assistance since they make a few dollars over the income threshold.

“Do you know what it is like to sit on the phone with a person of your community and listen to their stories about how they can’t pay their bills and how they are worried because they can’t feed their children, and how you feel on the other end of the phone when you are [experiencing] the same thing?” Andrews says. “We love the people we serve. But [it is hard when you are] in the same boat that they are in.”

Regina Andrews

Andrews is working from home and is glued to the computer from 8:15am to 4:45pm, with one half-hour and two 15-minute breaks daily. An extra ten minutes away from calls means she drains limited paid time off.

She says childcare leave at full pay would make an enormous difference. “It would give us that option to take a couple hours to deal with our children and their school work, deal with our mental health, and maybe have a quick moment to wash dishes or throw a load in the laundry — things that are thrown to the wayside right now.”

Even those who have taken the one-third cut have had no other choice and are suffering, Andrews says. “I know a single mom of five who got behind on bills because she decided she would take the cut. She needed to help her children. She needed to get her mental health in order.”

Mental health challenges are exacerbated for many parents, who are simultaneously supporting children dealing with depression and loneliness themselves. “We will do anything for our kids, that is why we continue to put our self-care to the side to take care of them,” Andrews says. “[County officials] treat us as if we have an issue with caring for our kids, that we should be strong enough to figure this out.

“I don’t know how much longer [workers] are going to be able to do it, but what other choices do they have? None.”

A Federal Issue?

AFSCME members say the response from Hennepin County, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has been dismissive. Commissioners did not entertain paid leave in the county budget proposal. One reason given for that is the belief that this is a federal issue.

As of October 2020, there were 2.2 million fewer adult women in the labor force than in October 2019. According to the National Women’s Law Center, in September 2020, 865,000 women left the workforce, which was four times the rate of men.

More brutal is the fact that women have been on track to make substantial gains in the workforce, outnumbering male workers for a brief period through February 2020. But the pandemic has put female employment back a few decades — to 1988 levels.

The federal $900-billion relief package passed in December includes $10 billion for child care, $13 billion for nutritional benefits, and tax credits to employers that offer paid sick and family leave. But many believe this is a weak stand-in for expired paid leave mandates. Is it enough?

Victoria Snow of Andover does not think so. “The federal governent should have stepped in a long time ago,” she says. Snow is a mother of four children — ages one, five, eight, and 10. She was employed as a certified nursing assistant in two assisted living facilities before the pandemic hit.

“Early on, I had a few of my residents pass away due to the virus. I could not be there because their entire memory care building was full of COVID-19,” Snow says. “[At] my second job we were getting tested every week. It was scaring me.” Snow has only worked one shift since July to protect her son who is immunocompromised. Now she homeschools her children with the help of her husband while attending virtual nursing school part-time.

Lack of safe and steady work has put financial strain on her family. “We have had to go on food stamps, we have had to get medical [coverage] through the state,” Snow says. “In my perfect world, people would listen to the science of what is happening right now to keep our most vulnerable alive.”

Social Support

Before the pandemic, Snow met up with with other homeschooling families. She says differing views on masks led her to cut ties with those social support systems. Within Snow’s extended family as well, there are differing views on the existence of the pandemic. That and distancing from her at-risk mother and sister have meant she misses daily support from family.

“Having experience with the vulnerable — it is not worth putting other people at risk,” Snow says. “It is really tough to see people who ignore or deny that this is a real thing. My dad is one of those people, so we have not been around him.

Annie Goodman. Photo Sarah Whiting

“I never saw myself as a political person until the pandemic began,” Snow continues. “I have had hard conversations with people I know about why we are not seeing [them] because we care about them and we care about our family.”

Annie Goodman gave birth to her first child in July. Like Snow, she is distancing from family support to protect her newborn. “Becoming a new mother, it shook me,” she says. “I grew up across the street from my grandparents. There was always someone to keep an eye on me. Without the free labor of your family, I do not know how people do it.”

Goodman owns the family store where she witnessed her mother work during her childhood. After giving birth, she kept the business closed until the end of August to take one month of maternity leave. Goodman says the store does well in proportion to the time she has to work, which is not a lot. She cares for her child while her husband — also a business owner — works from home.

“Language surrounding openings, closings, hours, curbside pickup — retail is all being done so differently. My role becomes increasingly more important,” Goodman says. “When my baby naps, I try to get work done. I usually start around 4:30 or 5pm, and work as long as I am able to.”

In March, Goodman felt panic because of the little information available on COVID-19’s risk to children and pregnant women. She scrambled to research birthing centers and at-home births. During the last week in June, hospital restrictions loosened and Goodman’s husband was able to be in the room when she gave birth. She was COVID-19-tested in the midst of contractions, and was able to be maskless during labor. She says the hospital portion of the experience was expected. What was different than she had imagined after giving birth to her first child, was the empty house she returned to.

“The thing that we missed out on was anyone visiting us in the hospital, anyone being there when we got home with the baby,” Goodman says. She also mourns the part of being a new mom that involves other mothers, in classes or through reconnecting with friends who are parents. “But I feel I lucked out, it was good timing.”

Act of Creativity

For someone who changed the trajectory of her career to address the needs of working women, Alex West Steinman knows what happens when parents are not offered the support they need.

“Work and childcare have been on women for most of eternity,” Steinman says, “so right now we are seeing that play out with women leaving the workforce. Many of our members took a survey in the fall and 52 percent of entrepreneurs who are parents are doing less paid work — but all of them are doing more work.”

Alex West Steinman with her family.

Steinman is founder and CEO of The Coven, a membership- based coworking space focused on providing women and nonbinary people a “sense of safety and bravery to step into their economic power,” she says. When the pandemic hit, Steinman’s children, ages four and six, began virtual PreK while Steinman continued to work full-time in addition to picking up freelance projects to supplement the family’s income while her husband job-hunted.

“I own a very successful business, he owns a very successful business, but nothing that is bringing in any income for us,” Steinman says. “We have to weigh the pros and cons of ‘does he step out of the workforce and focus on the children, or do we try to pick up more work?’ People are grappling with a lot of decisions that they were not having to make before.”

One of the unexpected bright spots of the pandemic for Steinman has been the opportunity to participate more fully in her children’s education. She feels lucky, too, to be able to form a learning pod with another family in her Plymouth neighborhood. She says the community that has arisen from pod learning and other types of support systems might help society reimagine parenting.

“If the government is not going to provide the funding and support that is needed, we are the only ones that are able to support ourselves,” Steinman says. “Families were communal in the past. I hope that this is something we take away [from the pandemic] — how can we lend support to one another?”

Steinman emphasizes that many of the failing systems in the U.S. — healthcare, transportation, safe and affordable housing — are deeply intertwined with how this country treats its mothers.

“We do not have systems in place to make sure that, at birth, our kids, our women — particularly women of color, Black women — have the support that they need,” Steinman says. “Parenthood is an act of creativity; you are literally creating life. In our capitalistic society, we are creating the next workforce. Without the support to do so, we are continuing the cycles that we know are oppressive for many. We have to get ourselves off of that hamster wheel.”