Time use and the care economy in times of COVID-19: A crisis within a crisis

Aug 24, 2021

Authors: Erika Martínez Fernández, Lina Tafur Marín, Laura Silva Aguilar, Susana Martinez-Restrepo

Historically, women have assumed the role of caregivers in the household, and COVID-19 has reinforced that pattern. Since the onset of the pandemic, women are shouldering the increased burdens of household chores and care due to mobility restriction measures and lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus. What can data tell us about time use and the care economy in times of COVID-19?

Data prior to COVID-19 reveal that Latin American women already spent three times as much time on unpaid care work as men, [1] which has increased over the past month. According to UN Women, women spend 4.1 hours per day on unpaid domestic and care work during the pandemic, compared to 1.7 hours for men. 

This brief explores how women have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis as unpaid and paid care workers in the care economy,  ultimately increasing their time scarcity. The care economy comprises the paid and unpaid work involving activities and relationships that meet adult´s and children’s physical, psychological, and emotional needs through care and support. [2]

The analysis conducted in this brief uses time-use data from the World Bank and employment data on the paid care economy from ILOSTAT to understand the gender dimension found in the relationship between time use and unpaid and paid care work across Latin America. Time Use and the Care Economy in Times of COVID-19: A Crisis Within a Crisis is the fourth brief of the series Gender and COVID by CoreWoman and Cepei. 

One of the challenges to carry out this analysis is that time-use data and surveys are often limited or nonexistent. This makes it impossible to compare any changes in women’s and men’s time use to account for women’s time scarcity, which is believed to be affecting their participation in labor markets. Additionally, countries that did and are currently using time-use surveys do not do so with standardized methodologies that allow an easy comparison of countries within and across regions.  


Being a woman, independently of their role as daughter, wife, mother, or even grandmother has historically been conducive to caring for children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled, and taking on the vast majority of domestic work. Pandemics and the economic crises that come with them usually reinforce such patterns. Evidence from previous epidemics shows that women and girls typically take on the bulk of unpaid or poorly paid care work when formal care systems cannot cope with the situation. For example, in the Dominican Republic, during the Zika crisis, 79% of the time, women were solely responsible for caring for sick family members. [3]

COVID-19 is not the exception. Women were indeed already overrepresented in caregiving roles across Latin America before the pandemic. Gaps varied and ranged between 4:28 hours and 1:33 hours per day, but showed a noticeable pattern in which women were more likely to undertake caregiving responsibilities. Gender gaps in time spent on  unpaid domestic care work by sex are also replicated at the country level, as shown in Figure 2. 

Source: Author’s calculations, based on Time Use data from the World Bank Data from 2010-2017
Note: The data correspond to the latest available data by country. It does not include time spent on indirect care and volunteering.

Data reveals that before COVID-19, women were spending strikingly more hours in unpaid work than men in all countries. Figure 2 shows daily hours dedicated to unpaid work by sex in ten countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The highest differences are observed in Mexico, where women, on average, invested 4.5 hours more in unpaid work than their male counterparts. In Ecuador, men barely spent more than a daily hour versus approximately five hours compared to women. 

Source: Author’s calculations, based on Time Use data from the World Bank Data from 2020
Note: This information does not include time spent on indirect care and volunteering.

Due to school closures and generalized mobility restrictions, COVID-19 is believed to have increased women’s time scarcity. Since domestic services were cut in many households, women have borne the burden of household chores, seeing their domestic work multiplied and time availability shrank. [4] Social norms and gender stereotypes explain the prevalence of women’s time scarcity. For example, the model of “men as breadwinners” and “women as caregivers” remains relevant today despite increasing women’s participation in the labor market in recent decades. [5] Such a dynamic also implies that when some women finish their working hours, they still need to complete a “second shift” of unpaid household and care labor, which has been reinforced during COVID-19. 

Evidence suggests that the closure of schools, daycares, and different services related to the care economy are fueling women’s time scarcity. Countries with data available, for instance, have revealed that the use of time on household and childcare responsibilities has increased, leading women to reduce their hours or quit their jobs altogether in response. [6] For example, in Colombia women’s caretaking hours have increased by 66.5%, in Chile by 77.7%, and in Mexico by 48.3%. [7]


Before COVID-19, women were more likely to be employed as childcare workers, elderly care, and domestic workers. Paradoxically, some of these occupations were hit the hardest by the pandemic. Domestic workers, for instance, have been one of the most affected groups by curfews and quarantines since the services they usually provide were cut in many households and companies. This situation resulted in a dismissal of domestic workers at a massive scale who, in some cases, were left without severance or unemployment insurance due to their limited access to social protection. [8] It is estimated that 70,4% of domestic workers in Latin America have been affected by losses in the daily working hours, wages, and employment. [9]

Globally, women represent 70% of the paid global healthcare workforce and have a higher share than men in care-related occupations such as nursing, midwifery, and community health work. [10] However, despite being essential workers at the forefront of the health response during COVID-19, many care workers, especially in the Global South, have been neglected with little to no pay. [11] As seen in Figure 3, women in Latin America represent the biggest share of the paid care economy, reaching 74.7% of total employment in paid care activities in Brazil and the lowest percentage in Peru (60.5%).

Source: Author’s calculations, based on Labor force Statistics data of ILOSTAT Data from 2020

Looking at weekly working hours in the paid care economy by sex and narrowing it down to residential care activities, the subsector indicates a notable trend toward feminization of the labor force. 

Although, on average, women have had greater participation in residential care activities during COVID-19, as shown in Figure 4, data available do not suggest women work more paid hours than men, except in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Instead, they tend to work as many hours as men in countries such as Colombia and Peru. However, in Costa Rica and Brazil, where men work on average more paid hours per week than women, it might lead to potential gender wage gaps. This situation may be attributed to women’s highly flexible hiring conditions or informality, suggesting they are more likely to hold vulnerable employment.  

Source: Author’s calculations, based on wages and working time statistics data of ILOSTAT Data

Being at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed a high physical demand for care workers, especially those engaged in human health activities. The burden has been physical and mental since they permanently deal with the fear of contagion and the pain of patients and their families’ sorrow. However, what represents an extra burden for females in human health services is that they still must assume a “second shift” as caregivers within their households and families, leading to the highest rates of burnout, anxiety, and depression among female frontline staff workers. [12]


Recovery of women’s labor force participation implies arrangements for the care economy 

More women than men are shifting to full-time childcare, foregoing paid work, and exiting the labor market. By the second half of 2020, in Latin America alone, women outside the labor force increased to 16.8 million, compared to 14 million men. [13] To avoid the perpetuation of Latin America’s female staircase fall during COVID-19, some of the arrangements may include:

Recognizing care workers paid and unpaid 

There needs to be a recognition of women’s work in the care economy, both paid and unpaid. Specifically, unpaid care is unequally distributed between women and men and has historically restricted women’s time,  mobility, and labor market participation. The recognition of unpaid care would help redistribute care work through awareness and changes in social norms. Recognizing paid and unpaid workers could also lead to technological or infrastructural improvements that could decrease the time invested in unpaid care work, freeing up women’s time for paid work or leisure. 

Ensuring decent work conditions for workers in the paid care economy while strengthening its infrastructure

Paid care workers need decent conditions to conduct their work. Recognition should not only be restricted to wages but to wellbeing through better conditions at work. COVID-19 has imposed a high physical demand for care workers and a mental one as they deal with the fear of contagion. Studies show that women are more involved emotionally with patients and engage in more empathic care, leading to emotional burnout. [14] There is a need to provide professional emotional counseling and care, especially in times of crisis.

Creating gender-responsive care systems

Governments should prioritize creating integrated care systems that cover lifelong care needs and rely more on collective solutions such as government services. As a starting point, a minimum level of child care services needs to be provided. The availability of these services is essential for women’s full participation in labor markets, as their care obligations at home have historically restricted their  mobility to workplaces . In addition, it is crucial to ensure access to safe and affordable care for children, the elderly, and the sick. During COVID-19, the closure of schools and daycare centers caused many women to increase their time  spent on caring for children at home, leading many to drop out of the labor markets or  be burned out from work. 

[1]  ONU Mujeres. 2020. “Cuidados En América Latina y el Caribe en Tiempos de COVID-19: Hacia Sistemas Integrales para Fortalecer la Respuesta y la Recuperación”. CEPAL. https://www.cepal.org/es/publicaciones/45916-cuidados-america-latina-caribe-tiempos-covid-19-sistemas-integrales-fortalecer.

[2]  Addati, Laura, Umberto Cattaneo, Valeria Esquivel, and Isabel Valarino. 2018. “Care Work and Care Jobs for The Future Of Decent Work”. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_633135/lang–en/index.htm.  

[3]  Arenas, Carlos, Zobeyda Cepeda, Tess Dico-Young, Caroline Green, Eliza Hilton, and Valeria Vilardo. 2017. “Dominican Republic Gender Analysis: A Study of The Impact of The Zika Virus On Women, Girls, Boys And Men”. Doctors of the World, Oxfam. https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/dominican-republic-gender-analysis-a-study-of-the-impact-of-the-zika-virus-on-w-620261/

[4] UN Women. 2021. “Whose Time to Care: Unpaid Care and Domestic Work During COVID-19”. Gender And COVID-19. UN Women. https://data.unwomen.org/publications/whose-time-care-unpaid-care-and-domestic-work-during-covid-19

[5] Addati, Laura, Umberto Cattaneo, Valeria Esquivel, and Isabel Valarino. 2018. “Care Work and Care Jobs for The Future Of Decent Work”. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_633135/lang–en/index.htm.  

[6]  ONU Mujeres. 2021. “Efectos Diferenciados Por Género De COVID-19 En El Desarrollo Sostenible”. ONU Mujeres. https://lac.unwomen.org/es/digiteca/publicaciones/2021/05/efectos-diferenciados-por-genero-de-covid-19

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Diallo, Bobo, Seemin Qayum, and Silke Staab. 2021. “COVID-19 And the Care Economy: Immediate Action and Structural Transformation for A Gender-Responsive Recovery”. UN Women. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/06/policy-brief-covid-19-and-the-care-economy

[9]  UN Women, ILO y ECLAC. 2020. “Domestic Workers in Latin America and The Caribbean During the COVID-19 Crisis”. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/americas/publicaciones/WCMS_751773/lang–en/index.htm

[10]  Boniol, Mathieu, Michelle Mclsaac, Lihiu Xu, Tana Wuliji, Khassoum Diallo, and Jim Campbell. 2019. “Gender Equity in The Health Workforce: Analysis Of 104 Countries”. World Health Organization.

[11] Langer, Ana, Afaf Meleis, Felicia M Knaul, Rifat Atun, Meltem Aran, Héctor Arreola-Ornelas, and Zulfiqar A Bhutta et al. 2015. “Women And Health: The Key for Sustainable Development”. The Lancet 386 (9999): 1165-1210. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(15)60497-4. 

[12]  Rahman, Ashikur, and Virginia Plummer. 2021. “COVID-19 Related Suicide Among Hospital Nurses; Case Study Evidence from Worldwide Media Reports.”

[13]  ONU Mujeres. 2021. “Efectos Diferenciados Por Género De COVID-19 En El Desarrollo Sostenible”. ONU Mujeres. https://lac.unwomen.org/es/digiteca/publicaciones/2021/05/efectos-diferenciados-por-genero-de-covid-19

[14]   Pappa, Sofia, Vasiliki Ntella, Timoleon Giannakas, Vassilis G. Giannakoulis, Eleni Papoutsi, and Paraskevi Katsaounou. 2021. “Prevalence of Depression, Anxiety, And Insomnia Among Healthcare Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.