'Something's Got To Give': Health Risks, Lack Of Child Care Force Many To Leave Jobs
During the pandemic, a lot of people have lost work. In Massachusetts, more than 1.6 million residents have applied for unemployment since mid-March.
Some were laid off, others furloughed. Some had hours cut. And there are others who made a tough choice: to leave their jobs.
Michael Millner's job for 14 years was to help relieve pain and reduce stress.
“Then that all stopped very abruptly in mid-March, when one of my regular clients let me know that she...likely had COVID, and I have been shut down ever since,” he said.
Millner, 52, is a massage therapist with a private practice in Amherst, Massachusetts. He used to provide hands-on treatment for an hour or more. He said that even if he and his clients are sanitized and masked, the work is a challenge because of asymptomatic virus transmission.
“It just makes it seem very difficult to practice, and feel confident about the safety and responsibility of that,” he said.
Even though massage therapists were allowed to reopen in Massachusetts, Millner chose not to. He has two children, and said he's lucky because his wife is the primary breadwinner.
When Millner closed his practice more than eight months ago, he said he was thinking in terms of weeks, or a month or two.
"If I had been looking then at what it's turned into, I think it would have been a much harder and more sort of wrenching decision," he said.
Millner has been getting unemployment but expects the benefits to run out at the end of this month. He is available to his family — but before, he had more clarity about what he provided.
"I definitely struggle with just that feeling of not contributing and, you know, being more of a drag on the family finances," he said. "So that is hard. And — especially — without a clear path forward for an indefinite amount of time here, that's definitely tough."
Joanabel Carattini, 34, also had to leave her job. She was a CNA in a nursing home, working long hours, caring for patients with COVID-19.
Carattini is also raising two kids on her own in Florence, Massachusetts. They started remote learning in September.
"I tried one day to stay at my job and leave the kids at home on the computer, but the teacher called me, like, 10 times that day, while I'm working," she said.
Carattini's children are in seventh and ninth grades.
"Sometimes it's frustrating," she said, "because my son and my daughter — they have learning disabilities. So it's really complicated."
In September, Carattini spoke with her boss.
"I told her my son and my daughter's education is first," she said.
Carattini has no family nearby who can be home with her kids. Her husband is in jail. So except for an occasional weekend day, she’s not working. She gets food stamps and unemployment, but it doesn’t replace her old paycheck.
She spends her weekday mornings sitting next to her son and the computer.
"Make sure when the teacher says something, he responds to the teacher, because sometimes he not get focused. So I need to be right there with him," she said.
At the same time, Carattini misses caring for her elderly patients.
"I love my peoples. I like to help. I like to do something," she said. "I can’t be, like, at home the whole day just with the kids, because my profession is to be a CNA, not to be a teacher."
Carattini's hopes for the future? That her husband will be home in a few months, and she can go back to school to study to become a registered nurse.
Hannah Muszynski, 31 and a mother of two young boys in Leverett, also decided to leave a medical job.
"It did feel important and fulfilling to just be able to have this hands-on experience with the patients, and actually make a difference to them," she said.
Muszynski was a clinical supervisor at a medical office. She said she was lucky to rise through the ranks to get the job.
One day this summer, while her husband was at his job, Muszynski juggled working at home and caring for her sons.
"That was just a complete disaster," she said. "I would be trying to call patients, and talk to them about their medical problems, and my kids would be, literally, on top of me, pulling the phone out of my hand, singing or screaming in the background. It was a nightmare."
Then it became clear that school would be mostly remote in the fall, when Muszynski's eldest son would start first grade. Her youngest son was supposed to be in public preschool, which was canceled.
"I knew it was only going to get worse," she said. "And so I decided, you know, I can't do it all. Something's got to give."
So Muszynski gave up her job. She said her family is "amazingly lucky" they can reorganize their lives around COVID, and live on a single income, while she helps her son stay focused.
"If I was still at work, Joey would be technically still attending remote school, but he wouldn't be doing the work. And he wouldn't have learned all that he is learning," she said.
The pandemic has underscored how critical child care is to employment.
Alicia Sasser Modestino, research director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, said child care is even more important in Massachusetts because there’s a higher rate of women in the labor force.
"That means in Massachusetts, 70% of kids under the age of 14 are in some kind of non-parental child care arrangement, compared to only 54% nationwide," Modestino said. "That could be everything from an after-school program to a child care center, to a home-based child care, to a nanny — anything where someone is being paid to take care of the child."
In the spring, when many schools and child care programs shut down, Modestino and two colleagues conducted a national survey to find out how working parents were coping.
"Of the women who lost their job during the pandemic, one out of four lost it just because of child care — not because their employer shut down, not because they were fired, not because they they lost their business," she said.
That’s nearly double the rate of men who lost their jobs because of a lack of child care.
The survey also found other discrepancies.
"All of these measures are much greater for women of color, women who do not have a college degree, women who are from households that are lower-income, which we define as earning less than $75,000 a year," Modestino said.
She said those groups of women have fewer supports in terms of backup child care, such as being able to afford a babysitter.
Some child care providers and teachers themselves have had to stop working — or have retired early, like Christopher Stetson.
"The director came in mid-morning and said we were closing down," he said. "Parents came in and took the children away. And that was the last time I was in the classroom."
That was mid-March, at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. For about 20 years, Stetson taught infants and toddlers there. But it’s hard to social-distance with young children.
"Sitting on laps to read books, sitting on laps to sing songs, dancing together — which involves a lot of aerosol expression," he said.
Stetson said being over 65, he’s in a vulnerable group.
"There is no way that I could keep masked and six foot distanced in that situation," he said.
Stetson had been thinking about retirement, but he said this was abrupt. And he will miss the relationships with children that he will no longer be forming.
"They show you the world the way it should be seen," he said. "The curiosity and eagerness to explore is unstoppable."
But the pandemic put an early stop to the work of this teacher and forced others to give up jobs they loved.