Confusion over a Florida university's memo to employees about caring for children while working remotely has put a spotlight on the pain working parents are feeling during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly working moms.
Several professors at Florida State University took to Twitter last week after receiving a memo from the university that stated it would "return to normal policy" on Aug. 7 and "no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely."
"I can't even process that -- the pandemic is not over and will not be over then," Dr. Jenny Root, an associate professor of special education at FSU, wrote on Twitter about the policy.
Katherine Musacchio Schafer, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at FSU, said the email from university officials caught her off guard. Since March, Schafer has been caring for her 2-year-old daughter at home without child care while also completing her doctoral research.
"I laughed out loud and then I called my older sister and her husband, who are lawyers in [Washington], D.C., and asked them, 'Is this legal?,'" Schafer told "Good Morning America." "It just seemed like an outrageous demand."
"It would be the exact same thing as if someone also sent you an email and was like, 'Hey, we've decided to not allow people to eat during the day,'" she said. "That's a ridiculous claim if you can't enforce it and also, what am I going to do with my 2-year-old?"
The university sent out a second email two days later to faculty and staff, apologizing that the first message "caused confusion and anxiety for many employees" and clarifying that its policy does still "allow employees to work from home while caring for children."
Dennis Schnittker, an FSU spokesman, told "GMA" Wednesday that university "employees working remotely can continue to care for their children at home, as has been allowed since the beginning of the pandemic in March."
The Aug. 7 date was considered a time when schools and day care centers would be open in the Tallahassee area, where FSU is based, but now that timeline is in flux due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Florida, according to Schnittker. The policy update outlined in the original email also applied only to staff employees who did not work remotely before the pandemic and was an update on the university's telecommuting agreement for staff employees that was put on hold during the pandemic, he said.
"Those staff employees should work with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to their work obligations," said Schnittker. "Again, all our employees are being allowed to care for children while working from home."
Women will be the ones 'to sacrifice'
The discussions between employers and employees unfolding at FSU, a public university, are just one example of the dilemma that working parents across the country are facing as their places of business reopen, but their child care situation remains in flux.
There is currently a national debate underway about how and whether schools will reopen in the fall, with President Donald Trump putting pressure on schools to open and some parents, teachers, administrators and health officials remaining worried about the safety of sending kids back full time.
Some schools are planning for a situation in which students are in-person a few days a week and learning remotely the other days, a child care logistical nightmare for parents. In the case of day care centers, there are still questions about safety and experts are warning that the coronavirus pandemic is pushing the industry to the brink of collapse.
The lack of child care options caused by the coronavirus pandemic could have a damaging effect on women in the workplace, according to Lisa Levenstein, director of women's, gender and sexuality studies and associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
"What we're going to see is increasing numbers of middle class women are just not going to be able to go back to work if their work changes from being able to be remote to being on site or they may decide they can't do it remotely, that it's too much with the kids," she said. "They may just decide to drop out of the labor force and we know that will have lasting impacts because it's very difficult to get back into the labor force when you leave."
"The reason that women will be the ones to do this is because they tend to be in those lines of employment that pay less, not that their work is any less important, but just as a culture we value it less and thus it's paid less and so they'll be the ones who tend to sacrifice," added Levenstein, the author of "They Didn't See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties."
Women are already facing the brunt of unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic, data shows, leading experts to label this economic downturn a "she-cession." Just over 11% of women were unemployed in June, compared to just over 10% of men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Just a few months ago, in December, women had marked a historic achievement when, for the first time in a decade, they surpassed men with the number of U.S. jobs held, according to the Department of Labor.
"If you take the unemployment rate, the people who have just lost their jobs, and add that to those who are not going to be able to go back if they can't figure out what to do with their kids, if they have no option for child care, it's really going to be a significant change," said Levenstein, pointing out that lower-income women will be even more affected. "It's a really big deal."
In addition, whether a woman is employed or not, the heavy domestic burden that women carry has been laid bare during this pandemic, with women taking on increased tasks at home and reporting even more stress, data shows.
"Women right now are basically performing the invisible labor that is holding things together," said Levenstein." "They are keeping our economy and our society at large functioning and keeping children alive, often while simultaneously trying to perform full responsibilities for their jobs in the midst of a pandemic that is incredibly stressful for everyone, even people without any dependents."
Schafer, the FSU doctoral candidate, said she has made it through the pandemic without child care by working on her research during her daughter's nap time and at night, often sending emails into the wee hours of the morning.
"I think sometimes there's this notion that to be supportive of parents you need to make the load lighter for them. I don't think that's the truth," she said. "I think the support that I've been given by my major professor and by my colleagues has been to work as efficiently as possible with the understanding that during the day it's busy."
"I do think very easily that we could cross over into, 'Let's not even ask moms if they want to be involved in this project because we know they're busy,' and that's not OK," Schafer said. "Instead, people around me are moving full-steam ahead with me and just realizing that now I work in the nighttime."
Levenstein said she is hopeful that this moment can be a time for real change in the U.S., both at the cultural and policy levels, the kind of big effort she says is needed instead of relying on individual organizations to adequately support working moms.
"The amount of change that can happen will be severely limited if it's just done in individual workplaces," she said. "There are public policies that can be passed to require employers to recognize this kind of labor and also to improve women's situation in the labor force."
Among those policies are things like raising the minimum wage, mandating family leave policies and providing adequate health care and internet access for all to help erase disparities, according to Levenstein.
"I think this is a critical moment and it could be a pivotal moment in terms of how we as a nation recognize the essential labor that happens in the household and is done in terms of caring for other people," she said. "We need to talk more about this kind of labor [done most often by women] that is often invisible and not valued."