Pandemic forces more US women back into the home

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Aracelis Bonet, a real estate agent in Orlando, Florida, has had to reduce her work hours to be able to are for her son 14-year-old Adam Martinez, who suffers from autism

Washington (AFP) - As the pandemic rages in the United States, Aracelis Bonet has had to make a choice between her job and caring for her autistic son.

The Orlando, Florida, woman decided to largely put on hold her job as a real estate agent to make sure her 14-year-old son had the constant care he needs. She now works at most 15 hours a week, resulting in a big drop in income.

"If I was a single mother, with my son, I probably would be homeless right now," said the 50-year-old Bonet.

"It's so stressful to be a parent at home, being their teacher, their therapist, etc., being the wife, being the mom, having to have to cook dinner, clean the house. I've forgotten to take care of myself."

Bonet's situation highlights the dilemma facing millions of women in the United States who must manage households with schools closed or limited due to the months-long coronavirus pandemic.

Many women are acutely following the political debate over reopening schools and health insurance.

The crisis has set back decades of progress by women in terms of labor force participation.

A September report by the consulting firm McKinsey found pointed to a stark choice facing many: "Over one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely."

A 'step back' for women

According to a July report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly one in four adults aged 24 to 44 said they were not working to be able to manage child care during the pandemic. For women, the figure was 30.9 percent, compared with 11.6 percent for men.

The data showed the labor force participation rate for women age 20 and older fell to 56.8 percent in September compared with 69.9 percent for men.

The data showed that women took "another step back" in the workforce and that the trend may be difficult to reverse, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton.

"Women who were in the pipeline to move up are now literally taking furloughs or actually quitting," Swonk said.

"They do bear more of the burden and responsibility for childcare, that they just can't work from home, and teach their children."

Swonk argued that Covid-19 "has magnified and exacerbated inequality across race, across income data and across gender."

The pandemic's impact on women has been felt in numerous sectors, including in science and medicine, where fewer research papers have come in recent months from women in journals such as Nature or the British Medical Journal.

For women who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, the lack of child care has made it doubly difficult to find new employment, adding to their woes, according to Gregory Daco chief economist at Oxford Economics.

"The pandemic has disproportionately hurt women in the service sector, the hardest hit by the pandemic," Daco said.

"And the data shows the return of employment is much slower for women than for men."

Weighing the risks

Mary Proffitt of Lexington, Kentucky, is one of those waiting.

Caring for her 12-year-old son and leukemia-stricken, 88-year-old father, Proffitt was laid from in March from her restaurant job.

But even the idea of going back to work is remote for the women in her sixties, who would have to risk exposure to the coronavirus and transmission to her immunity-deficient father for a job that might not offer health insurance benefits.

"Childcare is ridiculously expensive in the first place and most of the jobs aren't hiring for full time," she said.

"So there's no benefits and there's nothing but risk, really to go back to work right now... I don't know why that would be worth risking your life."

Proffitt said the crisis has made her more politically active as the November 3 vote looms pitting President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

"I have been fooled before and thinking that people would open their eyes and see that this is just a disaster," she said.

"I've been politically active my whole life, but more so since March because none of this is right... Having the courts to decide whether or not to get rid of health care for millions of people in the middle of a pandemic that's not right."