The cost of ‘free’ labor; how the pandemic pushed working moms to the brink


Among the news stories detailing the effects of the pandemic are those exploring its toll on women and mothers.

The topic inspired a special NPR series, “Enough Already: How the Pandemic is Breaking Women,” which included a U.S. Labor Department statistic that women left the workforce at four times the rate men did last September. With many schools closed to in-person learning, the reality was someone had to stay home to care for children.

Women, in general, take on the role of family caregivers, said Ryanne Pilgeram, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Idaho and mother of three. Pilgeram will speak on “Motherhood and Work in the Midst of a Global Pandemic” Tuesday, March 2 as part of Women’s History Month events at Lewis-Clark State College.

“I think there’s been some really fascinating journalism work on the pressures women are experiencing during the pandemic,” she said. These stories have exposed an old problem that is invisible until a crisis: the lack of protections or support for U.S. working women.

“It’s been a topic of endless debate for decades,” she said. “It's just been laid bare by the situation we’re in.”

At the crux of the issue, Pilgeram said, is how society values labor.

People’s roles as caregivers are often overlooked or minimized in the workforce because of “artificial barriers” between private and public spheres, she said. “We’re not able to recognize the essential roles these people play in the world beyond what they’re paid to do.”

This ignores the reality of people’s lives.

“We can’t pretend that the people who are checking us out at the grocery store aren’t mothers with children who need care, or that teachers aren’t mothers,” she said. “We can’t pretend we are these separate boxes and that our public and personal lives are perfectly separated. We can’t pretend that the caring and nurturing for children isn’t essential work.”

Caregiving falls under the category of “reproductive labor,” which is unpaid labor that is required to participate in society, Pilgeram said. For example, she does laundry every day so her family can go to work and school and be clean. That labor is invisible, unless she decides to outsource it by paying a laundromat for the service. Only then does it become a visible part of the economy.

One reason teachers, in-home caregivers and child care providers typically arepaid less than people in other professions is because of these careers’ ties to reproductive labor, she said.

“If I’m a child care worker, the people whose wages I’m competing against are mothers who are working for free, people who are giving to society at no cost.”

Pilgeram believes state and federal policies concerning child care, maternity leave and education reflect a society’s view of women, mothers and women who work. Supportive programs would include publicly available pre-K programming, access to quality child care and paid family leave that applies to all workers, she said. Without them, women often are forced to choose between caring for family or financial security.

“We need to start figuring out how to get the ‘and’ in there, so that when we get into a situation like this pandemic, which will happen again, women aren’t the go-to safety net.”

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