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As school begins, mothers working retail jobs feel extra burden

The start of the virtual school year has been a struggle for Patricia Reveles, a pharmacy technician at a CVS in Los Angeles, whose daughter is in fourth grade.

Reveles, 49, is single and has long relied on her mother to help with child care. But she realized during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic that remote learning required more tech savvy than her mother could provide. Her daughter, 9, needed an adult to help her when the internet went out or her iPad froze, Reveles said.

So Reveles recently asked CVS, where she has worked for more than 20 years, to reduce her hours to 24 per week so that she could be home during the day to help her daughter while allowing her to keep some of the benefits that come with being a full-time employee.

“I like my job and I am thankful for it, but I am a single parent and I can’t be there for my daughter,” she said. A CVS spokesman said the company was working with Reveles’ union to try to accommodate her request.

Reveles is not alone. As the pandemic wears on and school begins across the country, women working in retail say they are being forced to choose between keeping their jobs and making sure their children can keep up with remote learning.

Women in all types of jobs are feeling this squeeze. According to a study last month by the Census Bureau, women were three times more likely than men to have left their job because of child-care issues during the pandemic. But the inflexibility of retail work schedules — where shifts can vary widely week to week and employees have little choice but to take the hours they are given — makes the pressure on those employees particularly acute and likely to lead to more women dropping out of the workforce.

“The caregiving responsibilities outside of work are falling heavier on women than on men, and the retail sector in particular is one where you generally don’t have a lot of control over your schedule, which can lead to a real crunch,” said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the nonprofit National Women’s Law Center.

The retail industry, the second-biggest private-sector employer in the United States after health care, has been roiled by the pandemic, with millions of people out of work. Women made up nearly half of the 15.7 million workers in retail before the pandemic, but they accounted for 65% of the industry’s job losses between February and June, according to a report from the center.

Those who have kept their jobs were heralded as heroes and rewarded with bonuses and temporary raises during the early months of the pandemic. However, many of these same retail workers find themselves struggling to fulfill endless parenting obligations while hanging onto jobs that seem increasingly precarious in a weak economy.

To date, federal and state governments have offered little or no child-care relief to working parents. The current debate in Washington has focused on restoring additional unemployment assistance, which lapsed in July, and granting more tax deductions to businesses, ostensibly to help them stay afloat and keep people employed.

But employees, union leaders and labor experts say none of that government support has motivated companies to find ways to accommodate workers who also need to supervise their children during online school.

Amazon is offering 10 days of subsidized child care, asking employees to cover no more than $35 a day for day-care centers and $5 an hour for in-house babysitters. The benefit ends next month.

Rachel Belz, who was an Amazon warehouse worker in West Deptford, New Jersey, said she needed more coverage.

Before she left her job this month, she was ending her shift at 5 a.m. and then getting only a few hours of sleep before having to get up to watch her son, who is in kindergarten.

“I am not asking you to take care of my kid,’” said Belz, 32, who is a member of United for Respect, a worker advocacy group. “I am asking you to make it easier for me to take care of my kid.”

Amazon said it was taking other steps to accommodate working parents, like allowing employees to start shifts at as many as 10 different times during the day and night. The company said these “unique start times” are meant “to provide our associates with more options to work around their child/children’s schedules.”

Prandai Ramnauth, who works part time at Bloomingdale’s Manhattan flagship store, was already facing a child-care crisis last year after her mother died.

She was able to keep working and pay for her son’s after-school care with a grant from Local 3 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, where she is a member. The grant covered after-school care but would not pay for babysitting costs during the day when she went back to work in June.

So Ramnauth relied on her 16-year-old daughter to care for her son, who is in the third grade.

“I told her she has to help me, that’s the only way I can hold a job or pay the bills — we have to help each other,” she said.

But with school starting up again, Ramnauth’s daughter has to concentrate on her own remote school work.

Ramnauth, who works about 25 hours a week and is her children’s sole caregiver, said she considered taking a leave as she tried to figure out her son’s needs during the day and when he needed to submit his schoolwork.

That would have been a setback for Ramnauth, who had just returned to the workforce. The extra support her family has received from food stamps in recent years is also in limbo, since the $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits she received disqualified her from the program. She reapplied for the assistance once she stopped receiving the unemployment booster.

Despite the sprawling size of the retail industry, few workers are unionized like Ramnauth, making it difficult for employees to push for more family-friendly policies or to even speak freely about their jobs and how they are treated.

Among full-time, year-round workers, women in retail are typically paid $34,000, compared with $42,000 for men, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The group said that in 2018, about 9% of women in retail jobs lived in poverty, with poverty rates “considerably higher” for Black women, Latinas and women with disabilities.

Wages and benefits are not likely to rise for women, particularly in parts of the retail sector that are under extreme financial strain or facing bankruptcy.

Jennifer Perez, a general merchandise clerk at a Stater Brothers Market in Ontario, California, has had to go to about 30 hours a week from 40 so she can better help her two daughters with remote school.

Perez, 37, heads into the store at 3 a.m. and works until about 7 a.m., when she returns home to help with online school. With less income, she and her family have cut back on expenses like eating out and cable channels.

Perez said her manager was not thrilled with her request to move to part time, but she was grateful that he approved it. “I don’t know what I would do,” she said.

Onie Patrick, 37, works 12 to 28 hours a week as a part-time cashier at Aldi in Rockford, Illinois. She has four children who are in eighth grade, kindergarten and preschool this year.

Patrick, who is also a member of United for Respect, usually works at night; her husband is also home during the day to care for their children. But virtual school has largely become her responsibility.

“He doesn’t really have the patience, he’s not as involved in their school, so he really doesn’t know as far as the schoolwork and level of what they know or don’t know — that’s mostly been me,” Patrick said. “It seems like a lot of moms, they take on the brunt of everything.”

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