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What would it look like if we started paying for unpaid labor?

It’s not a coincidence that women do, on average, double the amount of unpaid labor as men, and that millions of women have left to workforce in the last two years. So how can we solve the problem?

What would it look like if we started paying for unpaid labor?
[Photos: PM Images/Getty Images; Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images]

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Unpaid labor, including housework, child care, and myriad of other household maintenance tasks, has long been largely left of conversations about work, employment, and the state of the economy—in large part because it’s often invisible. Of course the pandemic changed that. Suddenly all the unpaid work taking place in people’s homes was front and center.

Unfortunately that didn’t spell change for most families. Pre-pandemic, women did on average four hours a day of unpaid labor at home while men did about half that—two and a half hours a day. The time spent on cooking, cleaning, and taking care of kids did increase for both men and women during the pandemic when our homes became our offices and schools. But the balance of labor didn’t shift. Women are still doing on average nearly twice as much unpaid labor as men.

This burden is causing many women—roughly 3.5 million in 2020—to either cut back hours or leave their paying jobs, setting women’s workplace progress back by a generation.

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But what if we thought differently about this kind of work? After all, nurturing the next generation of human beings certainly isn’t an insignificant job. If U.S. women earned minimum wage for the unpaid work they do at home, they would have made well over $1.5 trillion—or in other words, about the market cap of Amazon.

To help me answer the question of what would the world look like if we started paying for unpaid labor, I spoke to Melissa Boteach on the latest episode of The New Way We Work. Boteach is vice president for Income Security, Child Care, and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center.

She underscored that when it comes to unpaid labor, not only do women bear the heaviest load, but that the pandemic has made dramatically increased the load. Boteach pointed to the gender pay gap and the undervaluing of care work as some of the  main reasons why women are often the ones forced out of paying work.

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The solution, she says, falls some on private companies to offer paid leave and more flexibility to all employees, but the main changes that are needed are on a public policy level. Boteach focused mostly on childcare, as that is the unpaid labor that costs the most to replace, takes the most of women’s time, and is the most crucial long term investment.

“If you invested in affordable high quality childcare for everyone who needed it, you would increase women’s labor force participation by 17%, and for women without a college degree by 31%. Childcare, isn’t just a problem [when people] have young child; what happens is that when people have to cut back their hours or forgo career opportunities, or leave the labor force altogether, those decisions then ripple throughout their lives all the way into their retirement,” she says. “When you actually make these investments [in affordable childcare], women are making close to $100,000 more over their lifetime, by their ability to stay attached to the labor force, and then another $30,000 in their retirement.”

She pointed to solutions such a government subsidizing the cost of care, both as a way to help working parents and to raise the wages of child care workers. She also mentioned solutions that pay more everyone more directly for the unpaid work that’s taking place in their homes: child tax credits and universal basic income. “This country has to get more comfortable with the idea [that] giving people money is not a bad thing,” she explained.

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Listen to the full episode for more on how investing in care infrastructure can transform the economy and the workforce.

You can listen and subscribe to The New Way We Work on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcherSpotifyRadioPublic, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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