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‘A perfect storm’: Pandemic to have lasting effect on RI women in the workforce

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Marlene Muñoz was pregnant with her third child a year ago when the pandemic hit in Rhode Island.

She was working at a Warwick warehouse at the time, and her baby was scheduled to be born in August. Her employer laid off her and many others amid governmental shutdowns caused by soaring coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

“With two kids, and I was pregnant – it was hard,” Muñoz told Target 12 in a recent interview. “There was a lot of bills to pay and only one income.”  

When restrictions later relaxed and employment picked up slightly, Muñoz and her husband Henry faced a dilemma: how to both work and take care of their children at the same time? She was uncomfortable sending an infant to daycare in a pandemic, which she might have done otherwise.

The same conversation was happening at dinner tables across Rhode Island, as classrooms and daycares were suddenly closed, leaving it up to parents to figure out childcare.

Ultimately, they decided Henry – an Uber driver, who made more money – would continue to work while Muñoz stayed home with the children.

“As a mother, it was better for me to be here with my children,” Muñoz said. “Plus, I was pregnant, so I wanted to keep myself and my children safe.”

Muñoz was hardly alone.

A Target 12 analysis of labor statistics from the past three years shows almost an equal number of men and women were employed in Rhode Island when the first COVID-19 infection was identified exactly one year ago.

By April, amid sweeping shutdowns, employment plummeted 25% for women, while declining only 8% for men. Since then, male employment has largely recovered, while the number of women employed in Rhode Island remained 11% below pre-pandemic levels as of the December jobs report.

(Lisa Mandarini/WPRI)

The numbers reflect how the pandemic has disproportionately hurt women in the workplace. Longstanding inequities between men and women, such as wage and opportunity gaps, have been exacerbated over the past year. And the dynamic has some advocates concerned repercussions could last years.  

“When they step off that career track even temporarily it puts their earnings back,” said Kelly Nevins, CEO of The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. “We basically hit women with a fine for taking that time off, instead of recognizing what they’re doing is helping to build our future economy.”

 ‘A perfect storm’

While the unemployment rate for men and women was almost equal in December, underlying labor data shows many more women than men have lost employment, left the labor force and still haven’t returned during the pandemic.

R.I. Department of Labor and Training data shows roughly 278,000 women were either employed or unemployed and looking for work last March. The two groups together make up the state’s female labor force.

As women quickly lost their jobs, however, they also rapidly exited the labor force in the months that followed, meaning many became unemployed and then stopped looking for work. And as of December, the number of women in the labor force still hadn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels.  

“It became a very strange time to job hunt, given the uncertainty,” said Bethany Carpenter, a Bristol mother who was laid off last spring and, like Muñoz, decided to stay at home with her children.

“After a lot of uncertainty and sitting down with my husband we had to make some hard decisions,” she added. “We sort of calculated that we had about a year of resources for me to stay home.”

Carpenter had worked for a nonprofit that contracted with the R.I. Department of Education to provide early education to children in Providence. When changes at the agency led her job to be eliminated Carpenter and her husband decided that she would be the one to stay out of work, in part because seeking a job in her field of education came with many uncertainties.

“I worked in a female-dominated field, and the expectations of that female-dominated field are often, ironically, not that compatible with the kind of workplace flexibility that we hope for parents,” Carpenter said.

There were also health considerations. Her son Joshua, now in first grade, has asthma, leading the parents to opt for full distance learning even when schools reopened.

“We as a family were really scared, really concerned, really uncertain about what the health risks would be for Joshua,” she said.

The need for families to provide childcare has been a major driver behind the loss of employment among women, but it’s not the only reason. Nevins also points to the many industries where employment has fallen the most, such as retail, hospitality and travel, along with childcare services. The trades are predominately staffed by women, and in particular, women of color.

“These are all places that are either closing their doors, working much less often or don’t offer an opportunity for their employees to work from home,” Nevins said. “It’s causing a perfect storm.”

‘An impossible situation’

A closer examination of the state’s workforce data shows even more disparity between white people and people of color in Rhode Island – for both men and women.

An analysis provided by the DLT shows unemployment for white men totaled 7.8% compared to 16.7% for non-white men in 2020. Unemployment for white women averaged 9.5% compared to 11.1% for non-white women last year. And it’s not just in Rhode Island where these disparities are stark.

Nationally, Black, Hispanic and Asian women have seen higher unemployment rates throughout the pandemic than white women, according to a recent analysis by American Progress.

The progressive think tank argues the disparity stems from unequal childcare responsibilities and because more women work in industries hit hardest by the pandemic. The group also warned of weakening signs of recovery among women of color, even as employment data had picked up in some of the final months of 2020.   

“With the U.S. economy and labor force showing a backslide in recovery in December, especially for women of color, the need to pass meaningful economic stimulus and bold, structural policy change has never been more urgent,” analysts wrote.

(Courtesy/American Progress)

State Sens. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, and Alana DiMario, D-North Kingstown, introduced legislation last week that would make childcare more affordable by expanding subsidies and eligibility, along with capping family co-payments for the Child Care Assistance Program. Cano argued such steps are necessary because the lack of access to affordable childcare is disadvantageous to people of color.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there are several [systemic] inequities still present in our state, particularly in regard to opportunities available to our communities of color,” Cano said in a statement. “The ability to secure quality and affordable childcare is one example of these inequities that affect our communities of color more than most in our state.”

Many advocates and economists echo Cano’s argument, saying the disparity between men and women in the workforce during the pandemic has cast an even brighter light on the need for policy reforms that bring greater equity to the American workplace.

“This is really necessary to get women back to work,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said during a CBS “Face the Nation” interview last month.

The former Federal Reserve chair pointed to the more than two million women who have dropped out of the labor force nationwide, saying they have faced “an impossible situation.”

‘Limping forward’

Nevins argues many of the challenges facing women in the workforce today are the same as before the pandemic, but she’s optimistic there will be a greater appetite among lawmakers in a post-pandemic world to do something it.

Two of the biggest policy issues, Nevins said, are tied to investing in childcare and paying workers more money. She pointed to low-wage workers – many of whom are women – saying Rhode Island has come to expect a lot from them during the pandemic.  

“We’ve said a lot this past year about how people who are on the frontlines making minimum wage are heroes and essential workers, yet we don’t invest in them at all,” Nevins said.

The Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, along with other advocates, are calling on state and federal lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, to make childcare a local priority and to improve paid family and medical leave wage policies.

“A lot of the policy recommendations are things that have been brought up before, but they have just been disregarded as too expensive … so we keep band-aiding things and limping forward,” Nevins said. “It’s no longer a limp. We can’t walk.”

The General Assembly has long debated whether to pass some type of “fair pay” law, which would mandate that men and women working in comparable jobs receive comparable salaries. The R.I. Senate, which has scheduled to vote on fair pay legislation Tuesday, has passed similar bills in the past. But the measures have been met with powerful opposition from the business community, and a House version of the bill passed several years ago was considered so watered down the Senate refused to take it up.

Also on Tuesday, voters will decide whether to approve a $15 million bond measure that would go toward the renovation of licensed early childhood education facilities. Supporters argue the money will help augment the state’s limited supply of childcare slots available in Rhode Island, which has fallen short of demand in the past.

“We know that access to high quality, affordable childcare is essential for Rhode Island’s young children and working families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lisa Hildebrand, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Association for the Education of Young Children, who has advocated in support of passing the bond measure.

“However, because of high demand and a limited supply of available seats, Rhode Island parents are paying on average $11,000 per year for a quality childcare placement,” Hildebrand added.

For Muñoz, she hopes to return to work after her daughter’s first birthday, as she’s been wary to send her baby to daycare. And while she’s skeptical her former employer will take her back, Muñoz said working is important to her financially and personally.

“I want to go back to my job,” she said. “I don’t want to be home all day not doing anything.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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