Washington (AFP) - The Covid-19 pandemic forced Adeola Oyekola to shut down her home childcare business, and after reopening at half-capacity in February, the fast-spreading Delta variant may force her to close again.
That would force her clients to find other options so they can continue working.
"I have my own children, and no one really knows what is going to happen next," Oyekola told AFP.
The arrival of Covid-19 vaccines has allowed US businesses to rehire more than half of the 22 million workers laid off as the pandemic began, but many mothers are not returning to the workforce, according to experts and data.
Women accounted for less than half of the 850,000 jobs the world's largest economy added in June, according to Labor Department data.
At the current rate, it will take more than nine months "to recover the nearly 3.8 million net jobs they lost since February 2020," the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) said in an analysis.
While total US unemployment has dropped from the double-digit level hit during the worst of the pandemic to 5.9 percent in June -- and is expected to fall further in July -- Black and Hispanic women face much higher jobless rates of 8.5 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively.
The widespread closures of schools and daycare centers, as well as fears of the fast-spreading Delta variant, are seen as factors behind the slow job gains for these groups, even as unemployment for white women has fallen to just 5.0 percent.
The Labor Department is due to release the July employment report on Friday.
"Childcare certainly has a massive role to play in ensuring women can return to work," NWLC press secretary Gillian Branstetter said.
"Our economy is still out a net loss of 115,00 childcare workers, forcing many providers to cut the number of children they can serve and increasing the cost for any given childcare slot," she told AFP.
Concerns about how to care for children were laid bare last year when many schools shifted to virtual learning due to pandemic restrictions.
As a result, women between the age of 25 and 44 were three times more likely than men to be unemployed due to childcare demands, according to US Census Bureau data.
"I was laid off from my job last March when Covid hit, but we were lucky," said Stephanie Shipman, a Washington-area resident whose husband worked from home while she focused on raising their toddler son.
In June, Shipman returned to working as a customer support specialist, but is considering keeping her child out of preschool due to virus concerns.
As the highly infectious new variant takes hold amid stagnant vaccination rates, there are rising fears that schools may close again just as the school year is about to begin, forcing working mothers to make hard choices.
"We have failed to think about the service public schools provide," said Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, president and founder of the Women's Institute for Science, Equity and Race.
Elder care burden
And childcare is not the only issue facing working women.
Prior to the pandemic, Christina Ho, a 49-year-old data science consultant, worked in an office full time while being the lone caregiver to an eight-year-old daughter and an elderly mother.
"It was high stress, but I set boundaries," she told AFP.
When the pandemic hit, Ho said she and her daughter initially adjusted fairly well because she was able to work at home and her daughter had a "temperament that allowed her to stay focused with school."
But work felt "nonstop" as she alternated between her paid job and taking care of her family.
With her daughter currently at summer camp, Ho says life has become less stressful. However she still cares for her mother, who is afraid to leave the house due to incidents of anti-Asian violence.
"I am extending my work window," Ho said, in order to accommodate both work and family needs.
"In the end I produce more in order to make up the work time lost."
President Joe Biden has proposed universal pre-kindergarten program and other forms of "childcare stabilization" assistance, that Branstetter said could help "ensure women can return to work knowing their children are receiving affordable, high-quality care."
"If Congress fails to take action now, it is women who will continue to pay the price," she said.