Wisconsin families forced to choose between work and family during the pandemic

Working from home
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

By Natalie Eilbert
Medill Reports

The first sign of trouble for Blanca Animas was her daughter’s post-surgery infection that kept her hospitalized for 11 days. Then it was being furloughed without pay until she found someone else to care for her severely disabled daughter, Anna. By the time Anna left the hospital, Animas understood she would be her sole caretaker, and it was an unpaid 24/7 gig.

“It was a nightmare,” Animas said.

Six months into the pandemic, workers like Animas are encountering increasing barriers to staying in the workforce, as child care options dwindle and assistance programs dry up. As of Sep.14 in Wisconsin, 734,709 family households with children under 18 have reported job losses since March 13, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey. And mothers are three times likelier to not be working as a result of child care demands.

Truth Freemyn, who works at 9to5 Wisconsin, a national membership organization for working women, was already concerned about overworked mothers pre-pandemic. Between soaring unemployment rates and the COVID-19 recession, Freemyn said it’s even worse now.

“Not going to work isn’t an option for so many mothers,” Freemyn said. “They’re employees that don’t have any sick days or FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act]. There’s no sick leave; there’s no time off.”

Census Chart
Data taken from the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, Week 14: Sept. 2 to 14, from “Employment Table 1: Experienced and Expected Loss of Employment Income, by Select Characteristics: Wisconsin”

While millions of American families have enjoyed certain protections under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, many healthcare providers in the country are exempt from paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 
Healthcare workers are trained to maintain meticulous sanitation measures before and after their shifts. But the risk is too high now for even an inch of forgetfulness.

After her nursing shift at a hospital in Appleton, Wisconsin, Chris Propson, 35, undresses in her garage before heading straight to the shower. She washes her clothing separately from her 5-year-old daughter’s garments.

She hopes she is being careful enough, but she works in the COVID-19 unit every shift. And because there’s a shortage of masks and other personal protective gear, she and her colleagues also must worry about overusing supplies.
Propson worries about the future of PPE access. “If we have a much larger surge during flu season, I don’t know if those things are going to be easily available to us,” she said.

Sara Forss, a massage therapist and mother in Madison, wrote in a Nextdoor private message that her former employer pressured her to take on more clients following the quarantine lift in Wisconsin after Memorial Day weekend. Her 65-year-old mother took care of her child three times a week so she could work with clients. Unnerved about exposing her mother and child to the virus, she left her job only a few weeks after her business opened back up.

“This virus shows how broken our system is,” Forss said. “We rely on moms, especially, to take over the house and sacrifice their growth for their child’s growth.”

Parents are largely on their own when companies demand they work on-site, as the medical software company Epic Systems did in an email this summer. While they have since reversed course after massive pushback from concerned employees and Public Health Madison & Dane County, the stress and uncertainty continues for workers of one of Wisconsin’s largest private employers.

“While our intention is to return staff to campus, we are adjusting the timeframe as we work with public health officials to gain their agreement on our plan,” wrote chief administrator officer Sverre Roang in a statement to workers in August.

But the company’s back and forth plans do little to quell the anguish felt by parents laboring over child care during the pandemic. Over email, an Epic Systems spokeswoman confirmed that around 3,300, or 33%, of the staff now commutes to the Verona office for work.

When asked about their health and safety measures for working parents, the Epic Systems spokeswoman said the company would not comment at this time.

Animas family
The Animas family poses for a picture on New Year’s Eve 2019. Blanca Animus, second from top right, worked for a gardening and landscaping company before the pandemic, but now cares full-time for her disabled daughter, Anna, bottom right. Photo courtesy of Blanca Hernandez, the Animas’s eldest daughter (top right).

Meanwhile, Animas is still no closer to a solution for her disabled daughter. She has not found an affordable child care provider to help with Anna’s special needs, which include expertise to handle the 12-year-old’s feeding tube.

Her husband, the household’s breadwinner, cannot sustain their seven-member family on his salary as a truck loader. But in their new roles, Animas’s husband takes all the overtime he can get while Animas monitors family members entering the home. The regimen mirrors Propson’s stringent cleaning routine.

“I feel so sorry because I know they come home tired,” Animas said. “Sometimes after a long day, my husband wants to relax on the couch when he gets home. And I don’t let him. I just can’t.”

Natalie Eilbert is a health, science and environmental reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalie_eilbert.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated 43,000, or 45%, of Epic’s staff now commutes to the Verona office for work. The correct number of employees is 4,300, or 33%.