Working Moms in the White House on How They're Confronting the COVID 'Caregiving Crisis'

Three senior White House staffers detail how the administration has focused on working families and moms — and how the issue is personal to them

Photo: Getty

Jen Klein's son was around 4 years old when he asked her the question that, in many ways, has defined her career.

"I was driving him to preschool and I had speakerphone on while I made a work call," Klein tells PEOPLE. "I got off the phone and he asked, 'Why are you talking about the girls? What about the boys?' I told him that I spent a lot of time worrying about the three boys of my own. The rest of my time would be spent worrying about the girls to make sure they have the same opportunities."

Worrying about "the girls" would prove to be especially prescient for Klein, who in recent years has focused her efforts on combating educational, economic and health disparities faced by girls and working moms — particularly women of color — now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The pandemic created a health crisis and on top of that an economic crisis and a caregiving crisis," says Klein, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden and chair of the Biden-Harris administration's Gender Policy Council.

In addition to the threat of infection and school closures, American moms have in recent years faced the daunting challenge of finding childcare amid a global pandemic that is about to start its third year. As a result, millions have left the workplace entirely — either willingly or as a result of having been forced out. Experts say this trend has had a devastating impact on paid labor for mothers who say they are struggling to find support both at work and at home.

White House staffers like Klein aren't immune to the struggle. In fact, they know it well.

"One of the small silver linings of the pandemic was that I created a Zoom call with nine friends from college," Klein says. "For years, we had done something every month, and we kept it up and I think it's really been our sanity."

Klein says that all of the women that join the monthly Zoom call are, like her, working moms.

Jennifer Klein
Jennifer Klein. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

"In jobs like mine, which are very all-encompassing, you value that even more," she says, adding that the virtual check-ins "often take place at 9 or 10 at night, when the house gets quiet. Over and over again, I find that it's nourishing."

Not everyone has such a support system, as Klein well knows, which is where she feels the government can provide support. In its first year, she says, the administration has made working families a priority — announcing both public and private sector efforts to protect pregnant working women, targeting resources to help women enter higher-paying jobs in the STEM sector and working to make childcare more affordable.

Klein points to the administration-backed American Rescue Plan, a major piece of COVID relief legislation which was signed into law last March and which expanded access to vaccines and provided educational funding. Klein rattles off the positives, in her eyes: "reopening schools and providing direct payments to individuals — which we learned were incredibly important to parents — and helping childcare providers keep their doors open during the pandemic."

The administration's proposed American Families Plan, a sweeping social spending bill, aimed to take that even further, by lowering family health insurance premiums, extending tax cuts for families with kids and expanding reductions in child poverty seen from the passage of the American Rescue Plan.

But the plan — part of a sweeping spending package known as Build Back Better — was stymied by Congress, where lawmakers including some Democrats balked at the cost and parameters of the funding. It was declared "dead" this week by West Virginia's Joe Manchin, a crucial Senate vote wary of what he calls entitlement culture. But Manchin suggested he might back similar, smaller proposals in the future.

Regardless of the obstacles, senior administration officials say, their broader focus is unchanged.

Shalanda D. Young
Shalanda Young. Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty Images

As acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shalanda Young plays a leading role in formulating the administration's economic plans. She notes that the administration saw a "quick erosion" of women in the workplace during the pandemic.

Roughly 1.1 million women dropped out of the workforce between February 2020 and March 2021 — a stark example of how much the pandemic altered the modern American workplace, especially for women.

Studies have shown that many of them — who had to leave their jobs to take care of their children during a time of remote schooling — don't plan on coming back.

The administration hoped to change that with Build Back Better. The initial proposal included funding for a range of programs designed to help working women and families, such as an extension of the child tax credit; funding for paid family leave; and subsidies for child care.

"These aren't novel ideas," Young says of the policies in the budget aimed at assisting working families. "We want women to remain and grow in the workplace. These seem like easy things."

The proposal stalled amid congressional negotiations late last year, with reports suggesting the funds earmarked for working families were of particular concern to Sen. Manchin, a moderate Democrat, who reportedly wanted the administration to pick just one of those policies aimed at helping working families — and potentially go further with that program — while shedding the other two.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of the organization MomsRising, says the administration "made dramatic leaps for families in a time of a historic pandemic." But passing Build Back Better, she argues, would be "crucial" in order for both families and the economy to thrive.

"We need paid family medical leave, we need the child tax credit expanded … and we need living wages," she says. "There's no time to waste."

In its first year, the administration has focused on families in other ways, such as via a temporary expansion of the child tax credit, which provided eligible families with direct payments of up to $300 per month for each child under the age of 6, and up to $250 per month for kids older than 6.

Klein tells PEOPLE the credit "led to lowest child poverty rate ever, in 2021."

She says the next year and beyond will be spent focusing on things like closing the gender pay gap and addressing gender-based violence (which has spiked during the pandemic) and economic security for working moms.

"The point is that these things are all linked and we think about tackling them in concert," Klein says.

When it comes to families, one of the biggest priorities of the administration's first year in office was expanding access to vaccines — particularly among kids.

"I'm a mom of three between the ages of 3 and 8. Getting kids vaccinated was personal to me," Natalie Quillian, deputy coordinator of the White House's COVID-19 Response Team, tells PEOPLE.

The Food and Drug Administration in November approved Pfizer's vaccine for those 5 to 11 years old and medical experts have said children under 5 could be eligible for Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine within the next month.

"Rolling out the vaccine to kids ages 5 to 11 years old was really challenging," Quillian says. "This was all entirely new — tiny syringes had to be produced, we had to think about where parents would feel comfortable taking their kids ... and we wanted to do it as fast as possible."

Pregnant woman at work

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Testing for the virus is also a priority — though it's also an increasing area of criticism for the White House, as some experts have said should have been a focus months ago.

Expanded tests and more vaccinations, Quillian says, ensure more kids can get to school and that the schools themselves will remain open.

"When the president came into office, 46% of schools were open. Now we have 97% open. That is a huge change for both people's morale and a parent's ability to go to work. And for the kids — it's important for their social well-being, for their growth. As all parents can probably attest, kids are doing much better in school than sitting on Zoom," Quillian says.

A new mom of a 12-week-old child, Young says she understands the challenges facing new moms balancing work, family and their own health. And while her child isn't yet old enough to attend child care, she notes that facilities will likely be easier to access now that the latest and perhaps last major wave of the pandemic appears to be retreating.

"The day I gave birth, I began understanding even more the things that I have been touting,Young says. "These ideas came home to roost. Trying to get child care lined up, ensuring my family was intact, and my partner could take off enough time to support me, who was still recovering. I am lucky to be a champion of firsthand experience."

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