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SALT LAKE CITY – Women abandoned the workforce at an alarming pace in September, raising new fears that women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and that it could have lasting impacts on their careers.
As summer ended and children headed back to the virtual or physical classroom, another shift happened: 865,000 women stopped working or looking for work, accord to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Women have disproportionately suffered pandemic-related job losses,” said an analysis of the new jobs report by the National Women’s Law Center.
Four times more women than men left the workforce in September. During that same one-month period, only 216,000 men over the age of 20 dropped out of the labor force.
“It has been sudden and severe and uneven,” Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah said about the economic downturn. “Some people are calling this a pink collar recession and it’s unusual because normally it’s the men who are hit so hard in recessions, and in this one, it appears to be the women.”
Not only are industries dominated by women losing jobs, but Gochnour said women are also being impacted by disruptions to schooling and increases in household work.
“I want to be really clear, men do these things as well,” she said. “But the research would show that women have taken a larger burden of some of the things inside the home — and we are all inside our homes right now.”
Sixty percent of women in the Beehive State are in the workforce, slightly above the 58% nationwide labor participation rate for women. Of the working women in Utah, 74% have school-aged children.
“Women feel a lot of weight on their shoulders right now and the weight comes from worrying about their children,” Gochnour said. “It comes from the pressures that they feel.”
Kids at home
“It just turned everything upside down,” said Salt Lake City resident Robynn Garfield about the day that schools closed.
As a journalist for KSL Newsradio, an entrepreneur trying to start her own business and the mother of three boys, Garfield said the pandemic forced the demands of motherhood onto center stage.
“It was an overnight scramble that was almost impossible to do,” she said. “So I had to call into work that day and say, ‘I’m so sorry. My kids are home.’”
With a child with special needs, she worries about fulfilling the role of a specialized educator at home.
“Janitor, teacher, principal, therapist, PE teacher, library instructor — that’s me,” Garfield said. “I picked up 15 new job titles overnight the second school went out.”
Six months later, Garfield’s sons were still learning from home because their district hasn’t returned to the physical classroom.
“It all fell on me to either find child care, or quit my job or change my hours or something,” she said.
She emphasized her husband is helping all he can and has adjusted his work schedule on days she needs to go into the office. Even so, she’s had to cut back on hours and feels like her career is being placed on the back burner.
“You can’t walk away from being a mom,” she said. “You can’t get fired or quit. Those hours are there regardless. They’re not flexible. It’s an essential role.”
Garfield knows other mothers who have quit their jobs and worries the strides women have made in the workforce are being washed away by the pandemic.
“We were kind of starting to level that playing field, and now, someone’s handed us a giant weight,” she said.
A recent survey revealed that one in four women are considering either reducing hours or leaving their careers altogether because of COVID-19, according to the 2020 Women in the Workplace report by Lean In and McKinsey and Company.
“This is a critical moment for corporate America,” the report’s authors write. “Companies risk losing women in leadership — and future women leaders — and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”
The study warns of stalling careers and financial insecurity for women.
“If women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions,” the report said.
“For women, we just need more people realizing, ‘Oh, this is all going to fall on you and if we want women in a position of leadership we need to provide you with more support,’” Garfield said.
Child care challenges
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Nadia Costa said about being a single mother during the pandemic.
Costa worked as a property manager in Ogden when the pandemic struck and had no childcare options once school closed for her two children.
“I didn’t have family that could help me,” she said. “They weren’t old enough to be left home alone so taking them to work was my only option.”
She said the stress of managing a large apartment complex while also trying to care for her children caused nightly burnout and overwhelming stress.
“I tried my best for as long as I could,” Costa said.
By the time summer arrived, she decided to move across the country to be closer to her significant other and to find more affordable housing.
“I love Utah,” she said. “I love the mountains. I miss them so much but what it came down to was finances.”
She wonders why government resources weren’t there for single parents.
“It’s an impossible thing to expect,” Costa said. “I’m just really, really upset over the fact that we were just overlooked.”
Search for solutions
“Child care is critical to maintaining employment for the parents,” said Tracy Gruber, director of the Utah Office of Child Care. “And now for many families, we’re asking them to do two full-time jobs.”
Gruber said her office is rushing to expand options for families needing child care during the pandemic.
“They need options for their school-aged children that they never had to contemplate before,” she explained.
Grant money is available to help child care centers increase hours for after school programs.
“This funding will allow them to open all day to serve children on those distance learning days,” Gruber said.
In addition, there is now expanded eligibility for the child care subsidy program to help parents pay for some or all of the cost of child care.
“To working women during COVID, they just got even more put on their shoulders,” Gochnour said.
Communication with their employers is key as women evaluate their options, like temporarily reducing hours, working from home or taking a leave of absence.
“Employers need to be flexible, interact and communicate with women and be patient and help them through this,” Gochnour said.
Wise employers, she said, will want to find a way to keep valuable women in their organization.
“If they won’t work with you, go find someone who will,” Gochnour explained. “Because it’s a competitive job market even in these circumstances.”
Gochnour reassured that we are on our way to a slow recovery. In the meantime, she advised working women to be realistic.
“You’re going to have to make some choices. You’re going to have to sacrifice — you can’t do everything,” she said. "You’re going to have to prioritize yourself. But in the end, pandemics end. We’ll get through this.”