Lack of childcare is emerging as one of the biggest issues of the lockdown, affecting millions of working families across the country. Women, in particular, are being disproportionately impacted as they take on a larger amount of home schooling and housework alongside working from home.
Schools are still closed for most children, there are no after school clubs or activity clubs, and informal childcare from grandparents or other relatives is not an option. While we have seen a reopening of schools and nurseries for some children there are still huge problems: informal care is still difficult, schools and nurseries can be forced to close at short notice if there is a spike in coronavirus cases, and we still don’t entirely know what’s going to happen in September.
London families and employers are particularly vulnerable to these problems. Even before the crisis, maternal employment was the lowest in the country, childcare costs the highest, and London parents the least likely to be able to use informal childcare from friends and relatives – probably because high domestic and international migration means many people live far from their families. Many families face an uphill battle: our recent poll of Londoners, conducted by Savanta, showed that 38 per cent of parents are ‘struggling to make ends meet’ and 11 per cent report having used a food bank in the last month.
Despite high and rising levels of maternal employment, mothers in heterosexual couples still take on the bulk of childcare responsibility and the childcare risk – they are the people who change their plans when care isn’t available. Data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that mothers are taking on the bulk of extra childcare and homeschooling because of the pandemic, even when they are doing as much paid work as their partner. This may be a hardheaded financial decision shaped by structural inequality – if fathers earn more it feels more important to protect their jobs. It may be shaped by gendered assumptions by employers who are less accommodating to fathers. Or it may be shaped by gender dynamics within the family. But it is not happening for every family, and it is not inevitable.
Prolonged breaks from the workplace are generally bad for earning power – mothers who have been out of the workforce for a while often end up in a job which is well below their skill level. One academic journal editor commented that since the lockdown she has been getting more submissions from men (perhaps fewer meetings and conferences have freed up writing time) but far fewer from women – and in this competitive, pressured world an enforced career break for mothers could have implications for many years. Women in London are already more worried about their employment prospects than men – our survey shows that 51 per cent of men are confident that if they left their job they could find another in the next three months, compared to 42 per cent of women.
In the last decade, with employment levels fairly high, efforts to move more women into work have often been framed around productivity – the economy cannot afford to lose their skills. As unemployment levels climb, employers may simply be less concerned about this – it is notable that in European countries, which have had high unemployment for years, there has been little policy focus on supporting mothers into work. But of course we will eventually recover from this recession – and we cannot afford to do so having lost the skills of a generation of mothers.
Although not its original intention, the furlough scheme has in practice been used by some employers to pay parents who have viable jobs but who are unable to work because they need to look after their children. As the scheme is wound down, it is still likely that year groups or schools will need to close at short notice because of coronavirus. With no option to go on furlough while this happens, more families are likely to have to choose whose job comes first – and very often, it will be the man’s job which stays.
Losing mothers from the workforce is not inevitable, and there are things government and employers can do to promote a gender equal recovery. First, government must focus on supporting breakfast and after school clubs to operate safely and effectively from the start of September – most parents cannot work school hours only. As the furlough scheme is wound down, parents who still can’t work because of childcare need to be protected – as a minimum, care leave should be paid at the same level as statutory sick pay (it currently exists only as an unpaid entitlement), and employees who have been absent for childcare reasons should be protected from being made redundant as a result.
Lockdown has shown that – for many office-based workers – it is possible to get things done working from home, disproving assumptions that home workers are inevitably unproductive. Home working can be a particular benefit to working parents as it removes the need to pay for childcare during unpaid commuting time, and the fear of being late to collect a child. In industries where it is possible, employers should continue to support home working rather than forcing all staff back into offices all the time. In the medium term, recovery may let us strengthen employment opportunities in local town centres, reducing commuting costs and risks for parents who cannot or do not want to work from home.
Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.