Wisconsin's minority mothers bearing brunt of pandemic unemployment

Posted: 8:01 AM, Mar 16, 2021
Updated: 2021-03-16 23:26:01-04
Brittany Morton with family

As we eclipse one year since the pandemic changed everyone’s lives, mothers are having the hardest times recovering.

Over a million mothers have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic and it’s not rebounding at the level other demographics are.

“I can tell you very distinctly, it was March 13,” Brittany Morton, a Milwaukee mother of three said. “It was a Friday.”

Morton had just started a new job six months before. It was a job where she was interacting with students, getting them to experience with potential future careers. The pandemic ended all of that.

“Right around April 1, they reached out and myself, along with a large number of other staff members, they told us they made the decision to furlough us,” Morton said. “Toward the end of June, they let us know the furlough would be ending and we were going to be laid off as of July 31.”

Wisconsin's minority mothers bearing brunt of pandemic unemployment

So now, Morton found herself out of work with three kids to look after and only her fiancé working.

“We have a new home,” Morton said.” Things needed to be done. How do we maintain this component?”

After a discussion with her fiancé, Brittany says they decided it would be best for her to stay home to care for the kids, 14, 7, and 3 years old respectively.

Brittany Morton's kids
Brittany Morton cherished the extra time she was able to have with her kids because of the pandemic, but leaving the workforce wasn't in her plans.

This kind of decision was one made frequently across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mothers spend 1.9 times as much time caring for their kids than fathers.

1.9x graphic Mothers caring for children
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says mothers spend nearly twice as much time caring for their kids as fathers. It's a big reason why mothers left the workforce during the pandemic at higher rates.

Because schools and day cares were shutting down, kids were forced to be at home meaning a majority of working mothers had to shift their focus from professional to personal.

“I understand, this is a time where people are surviving,” Morton said. “They’re doing what they need to do to survive.”

Working mom of 3 describes sacrifice

An experimental Census Survey collecting pandemic-specific data, found that 51,677 people said they were not working because their child was not in school or day care. The survey, which has run weekly and bi-weekly throughout the last year, surveyed 1,859,571 people. At its peak, the week after schools were done for the year in June of 2020, 162,867 Wisconsinites said they were not working for the same reason.

Census survey graphic
At its peak, over 162,000 Wisconsinites say they were not working because their kids were at home, according to an experimental US Census survey.

The businesses hit hardest during the pandemic were areas where minority women dominate the profession. Service Industry jobs like retail and hospitality were among the hardest hit and they maintain a disproportionate amount of minority women employees.

Minority women impacted graphic
Minority mothers were hit hardest during the pandemic, as they fill a higher percentage of positions in jobs impacted by the pandemic, like in service industry jobs like Retail and Hospitality.

“When we have a natural disaster, or in this case, a health crisis, it sort of rips the cover off of all of our society’s inequalities,” Scott Adams, Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at UW Milwaukee said. “The fact that Black women depend heavily on childcare and work heavily in the childcare sector, both of those things are kind of a double whammy to them.”

Adams says while this may be impacting a smaller percentage of the population, it will have far-reaching impacts on the population at large.

“I don’t think we fully understand, in a city like Milwaukee, how important the Black female labor force is,” Adams said. “They inhabit occupations that we depend on, on a daily basis. In childcare, nursing home facilities, community health centers, grocery stores. All of those have a concentrated Black female labor force and those are the sorts of things we depend on for our city to function economically.”

“We need to do better,” Morton said. “We need to do more as a community to help support women of color, people of color, to make sure when we have these traumatic events, a pandemic or any type of national emergency, that they are not continuously suffering the most and having this cyclical history of a poor experience.”

While Brittany’s employer felt they had no choice but to let her go, others took the chance to reevaluate what they could do to prevent women from leaving work.

“I remember the conversation, calling my team and benefits team and saying, alright, sit down and think creatively and outside of the box,” Becky House, Senior Vice President, and Chief People & Legal Officer at Rockwell Automation said. “Really, the question we’re trying to answer is, how can we help support our working families?”

Wisconsin minority mothers bearing brunt of pandemic unemployment

House, a mother of three herself, felt it was imperative to come up with innovative ways to support families. Of course, they offered the ability to work at home, but she wanted them to go farther than that.

Rockwell Automation added family support, including resources for tutoring and babysitting. The free premium access to a website called Sittercity, helped in finding babysitters, virtual sitting, pet care providers, housekeepers, elder care resources, and academic support like tutoring, test prep, and homework help. In addition, it also provides discounts for nanny placement services, discounted tuition for full-time child care at selected partner centers, and preferred enrollment at Bright Horizons centers. The company also offered access to back-up care for children, adults and elder family members in the event elder or childcare arrangements fell through.

Rockwell Automation's plan to support families
Rockwell Automation's plan to support families during the pandemic

Rockwell also established a new employee resource group dedicated to supporting parents and caretakers this past January.

All of these efforts were important to House. Less as a leader for the company but more from her understanding of what it’s like to be a parent.

Wisconsin's mothers bearing brunt of pandemic unemployment

“I have three little boys at home,” House said. “What I bring and the perspective I bring is what resonates with me. Where do I know some of my challenges have been? On some days, I have examined and said, can I make this work? Should I make this work? How do I juggle the demands and stress of it? I knew from when my kids were babies, you have a sick kid and a big presentation. Those demands and how do you juggle them. How and where can I have reliable childcare? The other stress, how do I make sure my kids aren’t left behind? The worry and concern, if I’m not there and helping manage schooling, who is?”

With this mindset, House says, the efforts at Rockwell have paid off.

“We didn’t see a big uptick, as far as attrition rates with women,” House said. “We closed the attrition gap we’ve historically seen between men and women. That’s an important part of wrapping our arms around people and their wellbeing, which helps them contribute better. Having an engaged and productive workforce drives our company strategy, helps us make a difference for our communities and customers, and that all hinges on our people.”

As things start to normalize, Morton has been able to find a new job that will allow her to safely leave her kids at home. Of course, she’s ready to jump back into being a “working mom” but it’s the latter half of that label that makes her nervous.

Wisconsin's minority mothers bearing brunt of pandemic unemployment

“It’s been mom mode for the last year and now I need to kind of turn that down, not off, but down and get back into Professional Brittany mode,” Morton said. “That’s the hard part of transitioning back into the workforce. I will miss some of the free time we’ve been able to have together.”

For even more support, groups like Community Advocates provide energy and rent assistance to help families get through these tough times. For more information on energy assistance, check out the Keep Warm MKE program or call 414-270-4MKE (4653). For rent assistance, visit the Community Advocates website, call 414-270-4646 or email

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