Twice the work and half the support: COVID-19 and single working mothers

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As COVID-19 sweeps the USA, it leaves vulnerable populations particularly exposed, attacking public health and forcing the closure of key infrastructure designed to shoulder societal burdens. The situation in the USA is particularly dire given the high number of single working mothers, the rising toll of COVID-19, and the rapid closures of schools and child care. A recent Pew Research Center study of 130 countries and territories found that the USA has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households and a low rate of burden sharing with extended family members, and the data shows that women are predominately affected. According to 2019 US Census Bureau data, out of 11 million single parent families with children under the age of 18, 80%  were headed by single mothers.

School and daycare closures have an immediate and significant impact on working parents. As, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), 76.2% of single mothers caring for children under age 18 are in the labor force, these women have been suddenly forced to juggle two jobs: childcare/education and their current employment.  

76.2% of single mothers caring for children under age 18 are in the labor force

The NWLC study also found that 16.3% of working mothers who have children under age 18 are in low-wage jobs, which are unlikely to allow employees to work from home. To make matters worse, women are disproportionately represented in fields that will expose them to contagion, including working as nurses or in professional care-giving roles for the elderly. These women now face job insecurity, financial instability, and higher risks of contagion while balancing work and childcare with little to no support.

These impacts are additionally compounded for Black mothers, who are more likely to be in the labor force than mothers of any other race. Faced with obstacles stemming from deeply embedded inequality in the United States, Black people are also falling victim to COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate, and Black single mothers are faced with overlapping systems of oppression.

The Role of a Responsible Business

To combat the financial, emotional, and logistical burdens presented by COVID-19, businesses can take the following steps, inspired by UNICEF’s 7 Ways Employees Can Support Working Parents During The Outbreak, to respect the human rights of single working mothers:  

Be sensitive:

In a privacy-compatible manner, employers should seek information (on a voluntary basis) from employees on the vulnerabilities that they are currently experiencing, including those stemming from single motherhood. Responsible employers also need to investigate whether current workplace policies effectively support single mothers, considering their unique vulnerabilities and lack of support network. Given the sensitivities and personal nature of disclosing such information, the onus should not be on the employee to disclose their parenting status, but rather on the employer to foster an open environment. This can be achieved through providing and publicizing ample opportunities for employees to check-in, particularly at times such as the current pandemic. 

Be flexible:

Whenever possible, as long as school shutdowns persist, employers should offer flexible work arrangements in terms of working hours and time commitment. This means that managers must determine whether rigid deadlines or meeting times are strictly necessary, and they must question whether it is crucial for all employees to come into the workplace. For example, Facebook has made a number of flexible arrangements such as suspending its normal performance rating system and instead providing employees with bonuses as if they exceeded expectations for the first half of the year and allowing managers to reorganize priorities on a case by case basis. While this may not be possible for smaller employers or for essential workers such as nurses, the commitment to compassion, innovation and understanding the “new normal” is essential to supporting single working mothers.

Provide benefits:

If workers must come in, employers must ensure good hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace. While this should be obvious, many US essential workers were unable to obtain PPE, particularly at the outset of the pandemic, and employers must make this a priority going forward. Additionally, employers should provide workers with guidance to seek affordable medical support and insurance to do so.

Responsible employers also need to investigate whether current workplace policies effectively support single mothers.

If possible, employers should provide support in the form of safe, accessible and affordable childcare—or at least offer time or support for the employee to locate such care. According to CNBC, fewer than one in five employers offer child care help, but experts say COVID-19 may make it an imperative.

If businesses must furlough staff or let employees go, they should provide them with accessible guidance to seek unemployment benefits or alternative jobs which are compatible with their childcare responsibilities. In support of this, a recent Forbes article doubled down on the role of employers in helping fired employees to find a new job, stating that it is a “moral imperative” and recommending that they do so by: (1) tapping their network; (2) providing tools to help the employees find a new job; and (3) offering severance. While the third step may not be realistic for all employers, the commitment to supporting and capacitating employees should be a constant.

Moving forward

As the USA braces itself for further devastation, alongside limited options for summer child care, businesses are well poised to take the initiative in supporting their most vulnerable employees by following the principles set out in Pillar II of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which articulates a business’ responsibility to respect human rights. In enacting the above steps, businesses would not only live up to the aspirations of the UNGPs in respecting single mothers’ rights—human rights—but would act as critical support in an otherwise devastating pandemic.


This piece is part of a blog series focusing on the gender dimensions of business and human rights. The blog series is in partnership with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and OpenGlobalRights. The views expressed in the series are those of the authors. For more on the latest news and resources on gender, business, and human rights, visit this portal.