Jasmine Moorman is having a difficult week.
The single mother of five is trying to sort out a logistical mess. She has to take her three oldest children to and from school because their bus driver is out, making her late to her job administering COVID-19 tests.
Her sons stay late at an after-school program, so she can pick them up after work. But her daughter isn't old enough to be eligible for the program, and needs to be taken home earlier — while Moorman is supposed to be at work. She had to scramble to find a family member to help out, and is crossing her fingers that the bus driver will be back soon.
Another complication: Her two younger children aren't old enough to go to school. A nearby daycare is dealing with its own staffing issues and isn't accepting more children at the moment. For now, Moorman's grandmother is caring for them, but she's getting older and taking care of two young kids is hard work.
Moorman, who lives in Owensboro, Kentucky, is dealing with all this while recovering from a breakthrough case of COVID-19 herself. She's concerned about what the future will hold.
"I am very worried that [remote school] would be a possibility again," she said. "Last school year was a terrible struggle." Moorman had been on maternity leave at the time, so she didn't have to worry about going into work. Now the situation is different. "If it happens this time, I'm not really sure what the outcome would be."
Nearly two years into the pandemic, working parents are wondering how much more they can take.
For some, the latest surge caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant is creating a whole new set of unexpected struggles. For others it means a sudden return to early pandemic conditions, such as working from home while helping kids with remote learning, this time after months of stress.
The domino effect is real — and potentially damaging to the economic recovery. Just one bus driver calling out sick can set off a series of consequences that disrupts work for several people.
Omicron and jobs
Some workers may throw in the towel and leave the workforce because of this latest hurdle, potentially slowing the country's jobs recovery.
"A lot of workers have withdrawn from the labor market," said David Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an economist with Bloomberg Economics. "It's just stunningly widespread."
More than four million Americans quit their jobs in October, a slight decrease from the record 4.4 million in September. (Many of these workers left their jobs for better prospects elsewhere, but the pandemic has also brought on a lot of early retirement of people who won't return to work.)
There are plenty of reasons to avoid work if you can. People may be afraid of exposure to unmasked or hostile customers, have a vulnerable dependent who could get seriously ill from COVID or feel pushed to quit because of staffing shortages at their own jobs that make workloads unbearable.
And for parents, a sudden lack of access to childcare poses a huge burden.
Even before the pandemic "many parents struggled with finding affordable, high quality childcare," said Elise Gould, senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, adding that "parents, particularly women, oftentimes left the labor force" because of a lack of childcare. "Omicron has exacerbated that."
Surges caused by variants like Omicron and Delta have "made it harder for parents to stay in the labor market or have a full-time job in the labor market, because there's so much unknown," Gould added.
It's too soon for Omicron's impact to appear in the government's employment data, she added. But if past is precedent, the current spike in cases will mean a weaker January jobs report.
The Delta surge brought "a pretty big deceleration in the kinds of job gains that we had seen earlier in the summer," she noted. "Recovery slowed measurably." With Omicron, "it certainly will be the case that that it will cause a hit to the labor market."
Daycares and schools send kids home
Terrence Davenport's two-year-old daughter was in daycare throughout the pandemic. Then Omicron hit.
A rash of cases among daycare workers and children meant Davenport's daughter has had to stay home for most of the year so far. While his wife is at work and their seven-year-old son is at school, Davenport balances hob responsibilities with caring for and entertaining their daughter — meaning lots of breaks for cartoons, coloring books and potty training.
"Normally what I do is keep her in my office ... and tell her to bring all her toys in to play while I try to stay focused on work," he said. "It's consistent attention to her, and keeping her busy."
Davenport, who lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, works for a global IT consulting firm that has been understanding, he said. But the current setup is not sustainable. "I can't be on a call with a two-year-old crying in my ear," he said. Davenport worries he won't be able to keep up with work while caring for her, much less be considered for new positions or promotions.
If their daughter has to stay home for weeks, the family will have to make tough decisions. Davenport is the primary breadwinner, so he and his wife have discussed the possibility of her working part-time or leaving her job entirely, he said.
Davenport's and Moorman's struggling daycare centers are representative of a broader problem.
Government data shows that employment in the child care industry is down 10% compared to February 2020, noted Jessica Brown, assistant professor of economics at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. In all other industries combined, she noted, jobs are down about 2.4%.
"With the Omicron surge, a lot of childcare centers were already understaffed, and so they don't have the people to cover when employees are absent," she said.
While daycare centers struggle to maintain staff, many schools are abruptly switching to remote learning as cases rise.
Apart from getting COVID and struggling with childcare, parents have to fear their kids getting sick, along with the threat of multiple quarantine periods.
Tired of being tired
When Tori Martinez's 11-year-old daughter tested postive for COVID-19 last week, Martinez assumed it would be only a matter of time before other members of her household would test positive.
She decided to stay away from work as much as possible for a few days, and keep her son home from school while her daughter quarantined in a separate room, and her husband worked remotely, also at home.
Martinez, her husband and their son — all vaccinated, like the couple's daughter — kept getting tested, anticipating another positive result. But the three remained negative.
It's a mixed blessing, because now Martinez fears that her family will once again have to go into lockdown if one of them tests positive from another exposure.
"There's been a couple of moments that I looked at my husband and I just said, I'm so tired of being tired," Martinez said. "We all keep trying to make the best out of the circumstances," she added. "But 22 months is a really long time to make the best out of the circumstances."
The pandemic has left Martinez, like so many parents, completely exhausted.
"Even when you know you're doing the right thing, and you're making good and healthy choices and trying to get over this hump ... it doesn't make it any less heartbreaking."
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