Erinn Skepnek of Kansas City plays with her son, Theodore, who was born last July. After three months on maternity leave, Skepnek took a significant step back from her job. (Danielle Randle/The Beacon)

Throughout the pandemic, Deanna Munoz of Kansas City had to adapt to remote work and adjust to a new position at her corporate job, all with three kids learning remotely. 

Then on Oct. 22, Munoz’s brother died from COVID-19. A few days later, her mother died of a heart attack, on the way to his memorial service. 

“My brother was a shock,” Munoz said. “And then to have my mom die was even just more of a shock, like, how does this even happen? My family’s going through a lot. And mentally, I know I wasn’t okay.”

After taking six days off, Munoz returned to work. Focusing on her job was difficult. Munoz told her manager she wasn’t doing well. 

But she didn’t get the support she was hoping for — no empathy, no compassion, Munoz said. When her manager expressed uncertainty about her future at the company, it was like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I decided to put my two weeks in, in December, because for me there was no outlet,” Munoz said. She had worked there for 15 years. “There was no support system.”

Munoz’s story of leaving corporate America reflects a broader pandemic-era trend among women in the workforce: With an economic recession and an abrupt shift at work and school, women are bearing the brunt of the impacts. The result? A mass departure of women from the workforce. 

For women like Munoz, the pandemic has pushed them to redefine their personal relationship to work. As unemployed mothers look to re-enter the workforce, they’re not just looking for a job that will pay the bills, but a job that will support their mental well-being and accommodate working mothers.

It was a tough decision for Munoz to leave her job, particularly one that offered stable pay and health insurance. But stepping back allowed her to check in with herself and figure out what she truly wanted to do next. Her family tells her she made a radical decision in a radical time.

“It’s not the easiest time for sure, especially when you’re worried about money and insurance,” she said. “But it was probably the best time that I’ve ever had, just because I finally got to figure out, for me and for my family: Truly, what can this next step look like, for all of us?”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than 2.3 million women in the U.S. have left the workforce since February 2020, compared to 1.8 million men. According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, by December 2020, the number of women on payroll had dropped by 5.4 million compared to February 2020. 

When looking at unemployment numbers from Missouri, data show similar trends to the national data with more women unemployed than men since March 2020. 

But in Kansas, data available on the number of initial claims filed each week shows that slightly more men than women have filed for unemployment during the pandemic. 

In addition, industries like leisure and hospitality, education and health services and retail have higher shares of female employees than male. So when layoffs took place, women disproportionately bore the brunt of those, too, according to an analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

The institute also finds that Black and Latina women are more likely to face steeper job losses than white women. Between February and December 2020, the number of employed Black women dropped by 9.5%, and the number of employed Latinas fell by 8.3%. 

Munoz has since found a new nonprofit job that she’s excited to start soon, one that is more community-oriented. For Munoz, her experiences in the final months at her corporate job showed the importance of having a supportive and empathetic workplace. 

“I said to myself, ‘I’m never going back to a world where they see you as a number, and you’ll forever be that.’ Constantly worrying about your job,” she said. “If anything else were to happen, there would be nobody there to support you or even to offer guidance.”

Working women expected to juggle child care, school, work and more

Munoz has one middle-schooler and two high school-aged teens at home. When schools switched to remote learning, she had to work and be a teacher, cook, caretaker and more. 

“I feel like for many people, you have so many different hats, and you still had to be Mom,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, women were already more likely to be responsible for “unpaid care” — cooking, cleaning, watching the kids. A 2020 Women in the Workplace Study conducted by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend three or more hours a day on child care and household chores. 

Martha Ross, an expert at the Brookings Institution, said the pandemic has reflected how the country’s current child care and school systems are inadequate to support the majority of women who work. 

“We have not invested in the public good and the public systems, like making high-quality child care more universally available and affordable, or thinking about how school hours and work hours don’t always align,” Ross said. 

“We have left it up to individual families to solve these problems that affect almost every parent who is also a worker.”

Deanna Munoz left her corporate job in December after 15 years of employment following the death of her mother and brother. She is also the CEO of the Latino Arts Foundation and creator of Midwest Chicana Brand. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

For Munoz, trying to keep up with the demands of her corporate job became more stressful following the deaths of her brother and mom. 

“I was terrified of even taking a minute off of my screen,” she said. “I didn’t go and take walks. When I cooked for my kids, I had my computer up, making sure I was on, whether I was mentally on or not. I don’t think I was. But I was terrified. And basically that’s the way it was till the very end.”

The pandemic added complications for Dana Soetaert at a time of transition. Her husband had just moved to start a new job in Lincoln, Nebraska, while Soetaert was living in Lawrence, Kansas, working at her clinical research job in Topeka and taking their 7-year-old daughter to and from school. 

Soetaert’s company did not allow remote work, so when their daughter’s school shut down, the biggest question in Soetaert’s mind was: What about child care? 

Her employer offered day care services, but it wasn’t the right option. 

“If it’s not safe to be in school, then it’s not safe to be in day care, either,” Soetaert said. 

Soetaert left her job and moved to Lincoln in March. It was a difficult decision; she felt a loss of her identity.

“You’re losing a job, and you had no choice and it was just sudden,” she said. “… You feel very caught, very torn, because you have to do what you need to do for your child, or for your family. But you also don’t feel like you can make that choice, always.”

She was unemployed until the end of August, when she took another job in clinical research. The new position meant taking a pay cut for the same, if not more, responsibilities, she said. 

But she could work remotely.

It’s an option she wishes was available at her previous job. 

“I think that creativity in how it’s possible would have made a lot of people stay at many places,” she said. “It’s the realization that that could have been done a long time ago. I’m seeing that the door is open for people who have disabilities, who have transportation difficulties, who have childcare problems.”

As pandemic evolves, working moms will need support to rejoin the workforce

For some mothers, the pandemic revealed an opportunity to leave a full-time job and focus more on family. 

Erinn Skepnek of Kansas City is one of those mothers. Skepnek had been working at ArtsKC for 10 years when she gave birth to her first child, Theodore, last July. After three months on maternity leave, Skepnek took a significant step back from her job. She now works just a few hours a month for ArtsKC. 

“I think the pandemic pushed me to the decision of staying home,” Skepnek said. “It wasn’t that it wasn’t an option before, but there weren’t day care options.”

Skepnek knows she was fortunate enough to make that decision with financial resources and the support from her husband and ArtsKC. 

The ability to take three months of maternity leave is not always an option. Without a federal parental leave policy in the U.S., the length of time a parent can take off work to care for a newborn varies across states, industries and companies.

I feel like for many people, you have so many different hats, and you still had to be Mom.

Deanna Munoz, Kansas City

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that passed last March mandated that employers provide workers with up to an additional 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave for employees who have to care for their kids as a result of the pandemic. Ross at the Brookings Institution said in addition to expanded paid leave, it’s important for employers to be flexible as working parents navigate the pandemic’s uncertainties. 

When Munoz decided to leave her job, she questioned if she made the right decision. But looking back, she says it’s the best decision she’s made — for herself and her family. 

“I think I have to give myself credit for that,” she said. “Because I think a lot of times, people don’t, and they stick to what they face. If you have a job, you have insurance, you have PTO, stay there, it’s safe. 

“But is it really safe? When you look back on it, it’s not. And people endure a lot that they really shouldn’t have to be enduring.”

Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.