When Lauren Martinez arrived home after work to find her teenage daughter feverish and vomiting, she knew her pandemic plans were about to fall apart. It was May 2020 and her day care had closed, so Martinez, an assistant office manager at a dentist’s office in Florida, had been relying on the 14-year-old to care for her infant son between middle-school classes online. “It was not ideal,” she says. “But there was literally no option but her.” Martinez’s husband worked at the same office, and the family needed both incomes.
Martinez had returned to work from maternity leave about a month earlier, and she had hoped to drive home every day around noon to nurse her son. But by that particular day in May, she had pretty much given up on breastfeeding. She says she wasn’t provided private space to pump at work or the time to do so. “I was so engorged,” she says. “I would literally have to change my clothes every day because I would be leaking that whole time. I don’t think men understand that.” Still, she tried to get home when she could to offer at least a few minutes’ relief to her daughter.
But seeing her child sick and vulnerable that evening, Martinez knew this setup was unsustainable. “There’s something about when you’re a parent and your children get sick, they get more childish. She seemed like such a baby to me at that moment,” she says. “I was like, I can’t do this to her anymore.” Martinez texted her boss and asked to work remotely. Her request was denied. “I think he liked the Lauren before—no-responsibilities Lauren—better than this new mom who needed accommodations,” she says. “Now I was annoying or something.”
Photograph by Mary Beth Koeth for TIME
Within days, she was out of a job. “I didn’t know what law had been violated or if anything had been violated,” she says. “It just felt so wrong to me.” In July, she filed a lawsuit claiming that her former employer broke federal law in refusing to grant her leave and firing her. According to the complaint, when she asked to work from home, the company told her, “If you cannot come in due to childcare … the position is vacated. Meaning you no longer have a job here.” Then, the lawsuit states, when she complained to HR, she was ordered to return to work, but upon doing so, she was written up for poor attendance. After she objected, she was fired.
Her manager, she alleges, later asked Martinez’s husband to have her delete the texts the manager had sent her. Her husband refused and quit, leaving them without any income in an economic shutdown. “I was like, We’re going to be homeless,” she says. (A representative for the company declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the owners of its practices have offered many COVID-19-related benefits to its staff.)
More than 2.3 million women have dropped out of the labor force since February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A Census Bureau and Federal Reserve analysis found that 1 in 3 women not working in July cited childcare issues as the reason, and Pew found that mothers of children 12 and under were three times more likely than fathers to have lost work between February and August. Latina and Black women have been hit hardest, and women’s labor-force participation reached a 33-year low in January. Economists have dubbed this recession a “shecession.”
The Center for WorkLife Law tells TIME that since the start of the pandemic, they have received seven times more calls than usual to their help line with questions and complaints about discrimination, but most mothers have no recourse. Congress hastily passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in March 2020, which offered up to 12 weeks of paid leave to some workers whose children’s schools and day cares had closed. But the legislation strictly limited who qualified, and the benefits expired at the end of 2020.
“You’re screwed in 2021,” says Benjamin Yormak, Martinez’s lawyer. “We’re getting phone calls now all the time: ‘My childcare crapped out on me, and I got fired.’ My answer has to be, unless you fit into this tiny, tiny, tiny box, society’s failed you.”
At least 58 lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. from April 2020 to February 2021 that allege an employer denied emergency parental leave, did not inform employees of their right to take emergency leave, or fired employees for asking to work remotely or take leave while schools and day cares were closed. Most plaintiffs claimed their former employers violated their rights under FFCRA, but some in cities like New York, where caregivers are a protected class, sued for violations of human-rights laws.
Still, even for those who have the opportunity to fight in the courts, the chances of restitution are hazy. Federally mandated paid parental leave is new to the U.S., so most of these parents are entering uncharted legal territory. But many of the women TIME spoke to for this story described how wrong it felt to be forced to choose between caring for their children in the midst of a public-health crisis and earning income to support them. “It’s so unfair,” says Martinez. “And I don’t even think we’re realizing the scope of it.”
A mother’s place in the American workforce has always felt tenuous at best. The U.S. remains the only industrialized country that doesn’t mandate paid parental leave nationally, and the federal government doesn’t fund universal pre-K even though studies show that access to early childhood education boosts the number of women in the workforce and economic prosperity. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates that employers offer 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, but about 40% of American workers are not covered by this law. Only nine states and Washington, D.C., have passed their own paid-family-leave legislation. And just 20% of private-sector workers get paid family leave from their employers.
Many parents cannot afford to take unpaid leave, and those who do take time off often feel pressure to return to work or worry that they will seem dispensable. The concern is justified. Thomas A. McKinney, an attorney bringing several suits involving parental leave in New Jersey, says mothers have become an “easy target” for companies looking to lay off employees during the pandemic.
Kristen Horine, who worked for a company in Ohio that designs parks, says she initially resisted taking family leave when her manager said she was eligible under FFCRA. She was used to working nights and weekends, and she and her husband were trading off childcare duties for their toddler and kindergartner at home. It was stressful, but not impossible. Ultimately, though, she told herself that leave could be an opportunity to bond with her sons.
“I was thankful that I had this time with them,” she says. “But there was this immense amount of anxiety and fear about what would happen in the future, with the pandemic but also with my career … I started to see all of my projects that I had been working on—that I had poured my heart into—divvied up between other coworkers. And my biggest fear was they would start to look at projections and who had clients and who didn’t have clients, and I wasn’t there.”
Kristen Horine at the Rocky River Reservation, a public park in Cleveland
Da’Shaunae Marisa for TIME
Just before the end of her leave, Horine and several coworkers who had taken family leave were told that because there was no longer enough work, they were all fired. Horine has now joined two other parents in a lawsuit against their former employer. It alleges that when the company cut staff at the end of June, the only employees laid off were the ones who had taken family leave, even though expanded FMLA was put in place to provide not only relief but also an assurance that if a worker takes leave, she would return to her same job or an equivalent one at the end of it. (Horine’s former employer declined to comment.)
Horine points out that this same company once asked her to bring her sons to a park that it had helped design for a recruiting video in which talking heads mention family values seven times. She says this emphasis on family was one of the reasons she felt comfortable uprooting her family and moving from Philadelphia to take the job.
For working parents, such cognitive dissonance is not unique to this year. It’s a grand American tradition. In surveys, most Americans still say it’s not ideal for a child to be raised by two working parents. And yet prepandemic, two-thirds of U.S. families were two-income households, and 41% of mothers were the breadwinners. A mass exodus of women from the workforce isn’t just a women’s problem: the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Century Foundation estimated that if women remained out of the workforce at the same levels as last spring for a year, it would cost the country $64.5 billion.
But the U.S. government has never been all that eager to establish programs that would make working mothers’ lives more manageable. During World War II, Congress approved funding for a universal childcare system so women could produce fighter planes and combat gear in factories. But as soon as the men returned from the front, the government dismantled the program.
“We just don’t have an infrastructure of care that’s publicly supported in this country in a really robust way,” says Melissa Murray, a law professor at New York University. “When we think about caregiving, we assume it is a private responsibility. And when something like this happens, it becomes obvious how cobbled together this whole network is. More important, it also becomes painfully obvious that the real public support for caregiving in this country is school, which I don’t think people fully appreciated before the pandemic.”
So it was a historic day on March 18 of last year when Congress passed FFCRA, which, among other things, expanded FMLA to include up to 12 weeks of paid leave for employees whose children’s schools or day cares had closed. Most of those covered were entitled to two-thirds of their salaries, capped at $200 per day.
Still, the bill contained carve-outs that chiseled away at its efficacy: Companies with more than 500 employees were exempt, which meant that America’s biggest, wealthiest companies didn’t owe their workers any family leave. Companies with fewer than 50 employees could seek an exemption, so few employees at small businesses were covered. Health care providers and emergency responders weren’t entitled to leave. In total, CAP estimates that 68 million to 106 million private-sector workers did not qualify for leave under FFCRA.
Tamara Brown’s 11-year-old loves to bake. “Sometimes it’s strawberry shortcake,” she says. “But his brownies—that is his thing. He will say, ‘Let me show you, Mom, how to do it,’ like I never taught him. That’s our bonding time.”
Lately, though, when he opens the fridge, eggs or other ingredients might be missing. “There are moments where he says, ‘Mama, we don’t have this,’” Brown says. She waits for him to turn his attention to something else so she doesn’t have to explain that she’s been choosing between buying certain groceries and paying for utilities.
Before the pandemic, Brown, a single mother, had been looking to buy a house. Now she’s worried about making rent. “We’re living on a need basis, not a want basis,” she says through tears. “And it hurts me sometimes because it’s like, ‘Kid, if only you knew.’ It’s not him being selfish. It’s just him not knowing … He still to this day thinks I’m working. It’s not to lie to him. In the middle of this pandemic, you still want your child to have some form of normalcy.”
In March 2020, the month Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency, Brown was sent home from her job at a leasing agency. Her son’s school had closed, and she had no childcare options. Soon after, Brown took in a relative whose mom had COVID-19, and that relative, whose bed sat just feet away from Brown’s son’s, got sick too. “On the news, seemingly everybody that had COVID was terminally ill,” says Brown. “And I have a son in tears and scared. The only thing I could do is say everything would be O.K. when I know I don’t have the answers.”
Tamara Brown and her son near their home in Southfield, Mich.
Brittany Greeson for TIME
While the three of them were quarantining, the leasing agency reopened its office. Brown explained she didn’t feel ethically she could file paperwork alongside coworkers when she had been exposed to the virus, but according to a lawsuit she filed against her former employer, she was never notified of her right to paid leave under FFCRA. Instead, she says, she was told she would be laid off if she did not return to work. (The company says in court papers it “complied with all notice requirements under the FFCRA,” and it offered no further comment to TIME.)
These days, Brown gets up every morning, logs on to her computer and pretends to work while her son is preoccupied with school assignments. Really, she’s been filling out job applications for 10 months. “I’m not a quitter,” she says.
Other mothers who spoke to TIME shared deep anxieties about finding work. One worried that her need for flexible hours around her infant’s schedule meant men or women without children were being hired instead of her. Horine is concerned that now that so many jobs can be done remotely, the applicant pool has grown exponentially.
And while schools may return to in-person learning full time in the fall, day-care centers have taken such a big hit that even when the economy reopens, women with younger children still might not be able to get back to work. A survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children published in July found that without government help, 40% of childcare programs would shutter.
“People are going to find there’s not childcare slots to go back to unless we make a massive investment to stabilize the industry,” says Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and childcare/early learning at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
Amanda Andrews, also a single mom, hasn’t worked since April. She describes her previous gig as a doughnut-shop cashier in Rhode Island as “perfect.” The hours were just right for her to drop off her youngest child at day care before work and pick up her middle schooler and high schooler when school let out. When schools and day cares closed, Andrews, like Martinez, turned to her eldest, her 14-year-old son, for help. It worked for a few weeks. Then as he tried to balance childcare with remote school, his grades began to slip.
“There was a few times the teacher emailed me telling me my 2-year-old was jumping on his back and trying to play with him, or she’s like, ‘I’m hungry. Can you make me food?’” she says. “So I knew it was interfering with schoolwork. And then he’s like, ‘No, Mommy, it’ll be O.K., let’s try it again.’ And again, his grades declined a little bit more. I could see that my son was worried about me losing my job because it was our only income.”
Andrews texted the store manager to ask for family leave. The manager never responded but allegedly told Andrews’ supervisor that Andrews had “quit,” according to copies of text messages in the complaint she filed in court. When Andrews was told to turn in her keys, she pleaded with her managers—“I didn’t quit”—and says she got a text back: “There are hours available … you … are physically able to work and are not. Legally that’s quitting.” (The employer hasn’t yet answered the complaint, and its attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
She didn’t sleep for days. “That was all I knew,” she says. “For 12 years, that’s what I did. Especially during a pandemic, I knew I wasn’t going to get another job, not anytime soon.” Andrews can afford only about half her rent. Fortunately, her landlord has allowed her to pay what she can.
The issues will not end when Andrews and others find new jobs. “Absent public action, this period is going to leave long and deep scars,” says Boteach. Studies show that when a woman leaves the workforce—for parental leave or longer-term caregiving—she doesn’t just lose income over that period of time. Those losses compound over a lifetime. When a woman re-enters the workforce, she often returns to a job with lower wages to get her foot in the door. She then advances more slowly up the corporate ladder. “All that has implications for your retirement security,” says Boteach. “It’s not an accident that women are more likely to be poor than men in their older years.”
For now, Andrews is focused on survival. She doesn’t discuss the job loss with her family. She wants her kids to be kids, free of adult problems. But they know something is wrong. “They hear me on the phone asking my father if I can borrow money so I can pay the electric bill. It’s embarrassing,” she says. “My daughter had savings—$287, I think it was. She comes to me with her piggy bank and says, ‘You can use this to pay some bills.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no, Mommy is good. Mommy is good.’”
FFCRA wasn’t in effect for a particularly long time, so experts are hesitant to speculate about how these suits will play out or what the verdicts will mean for future family-leave disputes. But attorneys say their clients may not see any restitution for two to three years because of the COVID-19 backlog in the courts.
Help may be on the way. In January, President Joe Biden released a plan to get parents back to work that involved extending emergency paid leave to Sept. 30 and eliminating the exemptions for companies with more than 500 or fewer than 50 employees. The proposal included over 14 weeks of leave to caregivers while schools and day cares are closed, as well as $1,400 per person for working families on top of the $600 Congress passed in December. Biden also called for $25 billion for the childcare industry.
On Feb. 27, the House passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which included provisions to help working parents but varied from the Biden plan in meaningful ways—notably, it mandates that federal employees have access to paid leave if they need to care for a child, but uses tax credits to incentivize most businesses to provide this benefit for private-sector workers rather than requiring them to do so.
The bill still needs to pass the Senate, but even if Congress does take action, a change in law won’t be sufficient. Mothers will not be able to escape the burden of gendered expectations around childcare without a larger societal shift. “We have this durable stereotype in the U.S.,” says Murray, the NYU professor, “that if women work, they manage to somehow reconcile their work life with their ‘real work,’ which is within the family. If they can’t, it’s a personal failure.”
Only two of the 23 employment attorneys contacted by TIME said they had received a single call from a man about the way he was treated as a caregiver during the pandemic. Horine is suing with a father named Nathan Leppo who was fired during the family leave he took to watch his sons while his wife worked as a pharmacist. “Other employees would be like, ‘You’re taking FMLA for your kid?’” he says. “There’s this stigma toward fathers that we shouldn’t be as loving or sing to our children or get them to bed or give them baths. It’s an issue a lot of men are afraid to talk about.”
Studies show that men don’t take parental leave even in the rare cases when they have the option, despite research that suggests fathers who do are less likely to get divorced and more likely to feel close to their kids long-term. “Until men see unpaid caregiving as much their responsibility as women do, you’re going to see women more likely pushed out of the labor force,” says Boteach. Women overall still make 82¢ for every dollar men make, with Black, Latina and Native American women earning far less, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In heterosexual couples, it often makes financial sense for the woman to be the one to leave her job or risk losing it by taking on childcare duties.
Rachel Tarantul, a nutrition and breastfeeding counselor in New York, had always prided herself on being a working mom, offering advice to new mothers who came into her hospital for help caring for newborns. So after her children’s school closed last spring, she asked if she could work from home. “I was ignored for a long time,” she says. “And then finally, they denied it. I felt depressed and defeated. I thought that I held some value within the company, but it seems I didn’t.”
In a lawsuit filed in February, Tarantul claims that in refusing to grant her an accommodation, her former employer violated a New York City law that prohibits discrimination against caregivers. (The employer contends in court documents that it was not required to grant an accommodation in this case.)
Now as the family’s expenses swell—their grocery bill has tripled with their three children no longer getting breakfast, lunch and snacks at school—Tarantul is grateful for her husband’s salary but spends much of her time preparing those meals. “They are starting to resent me because I guess they’re not used to me being their teacher, their mother, basically their everything,” she says. Her situation has started to feel claustrophobic, particularly since the family had to sell her car.
“Your car is your independence,” she says. “Now I have to wait for when someone comes home so I can leave.” Still, there was never a question about which spouse would step back from work. “Well, he’s the breadwinner,” she says.
Martinez, too, says it was a given that she’d be the one to ask for an accommodation, even though she and her husband worked for the same company. “I would always be the person, you know, because I’m the woman,” she says. “I don’t think they would have been too happy if he had said he needed to work from home. I think they would have looked at it, like, ‘No, Lauren can stay home. You have to come to work.’”
Martinez, who is pregnant and due in May, is working on getting her real estate license; her husband has found some work; and her daughter and stepson, who lives with them part time, are back in in-person school. But Martinez still worries about putting her youngest kids in day care before they can wear masks. “It’s really scary, but I know I’m just gonna have to do something because we have to pay our bills. I still feel like I don’t have many options,” she says.
She’s trying to enjoy the time with her family even under difficult circumstances, and she says she’s been open with her daughter about the lawsuit. “We talk a lot about everything,” she says. “First and foremost, I think she’s proud of me.”
—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Simmone Shah