Women have born the brunt of the economic pain in this pandemic recession, hit hard by layoffs in the shutdown then by shrinking child care options and schools shifting to remote learning.

The pandemic amplified existing inequity in women’s pay, a shortage of affordable, quality child care and the need for businesses to be more family friendly, experts said.

“Working mothers have always wrestled with the challenges of educating and caring for their children while they maintain professional roles in the workforce,” said Robyn Lightcap, executive director of Preschool Promise, which provides tuition assistance for 4-year-olds in Montgomery County.

“COVID has basically put a big giant spotlight on this challenge and made it more difficult because so many children are not going to school in person.”

Women have been hard hit during the pandemic and affordable child care is needed, but new regulations can be counterproductive, said Rea S. Hederman Jr., vice president of The Buckeye Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Columbus.

“Policymakers should be careful considering mandates that will increase costs on businesses during these times, because that will likely reduce employment opportunities for women overall,” Hederman said.

In Montgomery County more women than men filed initial claims for unemployment from March — when the pandemic economic shutdown began — through October, with a total of 46,519 women and 39,642 men filing, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Nationwide in September nearly 4.1 million women aged 20 and older dropped out of the U.S. labor force, which is 23 percent more than the 3.3 million men who left, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“Women in most circumstances disproportionally bear responsibility for child care for young or school age children. When you throw COVID into the mix, child care facilities closed and schools closed,” Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said. “Moms were not able to work and that hit the employment numbers for women very hard. Many of them left the workforce.”

Huge layoffs in the female-dominated hospitality and leisure industries have lingered, as those types of jobs have not recovered, said Michael Shields, a researcher at Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal-leaning think tank in Cleveland.

When large numbers of women stop working it has broad impact. It affects the family’s ability to pay bills and could reduce the woman’s future earning power and career advancement. It also hurts the larger economy that needs consumer spending and companies reliant on a skilled workforce.

For single moms it can be especially devastating, said Richard Stock, director of the University of Dayton Business Research Group.

“My real fear is there are a huge number of women that are single parents and my strongest fear is the amount of material resources for those families is simply not sufficient for them to survive,” Stock said. “You are really getting down to the brass tacks where the safety net is way too tattered to accommodate them in any way shape or form.”

Through November women continued to leave the labor force in greater numbers than men and experts fear it will only get worse if the economic recovery stalls under the weight of a COVID-19 surge and the expiration of some CARES Act assistance. Congress has continued its months-long debate over additional relief before all CARES Act help expires this month.

“This really is coming at really a bad time,” said Nicole Bateman a research analyst at the Brookings Institution. “I think we are likely to see increased poverty rates, increased missed mortgage payments and food insecurity. For many families this could be a really devastating start to 2021.”

Pandemic throws off work-life balance

Two local women who can work from home found it difficult to balance that with taking care of their kids.

“I’m working with people and you need to concentrate on this person,” said mental health therapist Sharon Reetz, 43, of Monroe. “It is hard when you have a child who is crying and you’re trying to do something else. I’m so amazed with the moms who can do this. But it was too much for me.”

Sharon Reetz, of Monroe, made the decision to quit her job and stay at home with her son, Esteban, 3, and start her own business. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

When the school district she worked for went remote, Reetz said her students did not always show up on time. So her hours at the computer stretched longer and into the time when her 3-year-old son, Esteban, was not in child care.

Her husband, Robert, is away for long stretches working on a river barge, leaving her as the sole caregiver.

“I love my job but it was a little difficult for me and I couldn’t find the balance,” said Reetz, who quit her job in August.

Aja Delaney, 41, of Butler Twp. is considering resigning from her job as customer success manager for a global software company.

She and her husband, Timothy Spoores, who is employed at the same company, worked from home before the pandemic. They sent their son, Logan, 3, and daughter, Maelina, 4, to a child care center and had a nanny.

But when the pandemic arrived, their child care center closed for months. Eventually they put the kids in a Montessori program, but that shut down for a period in October because an adult there tested positive for COVID-19.

It is a challenge to care for their children while working, Delaney said, even though their company is family friendly. The kids get too much screen time and sometimes into mischief, like the time she discovered one had colored a wall.

“They put their little hand on your arm and they wait,” Delaney said. “If it doesn’t get what they need, they start asking, wanting to climb on your lap and say, ‘Hi,’ to people on the computer.”

Delaney and her husband hope they won’t have to cope with another closure of the Montessori program. But if it happens, she’s said she may need to quit her job.

“I am in a senior role, I make great money, I have taken the opportunity to peruse what I would be hired at if I would step away and try to re-enter,” Delaney said. “That is the No. 1 for me to stick with it. If I leave, will I be able to be rehired and make a similar amount of money?”

Effects of leaving workforce can be lasting

People leave the labor force and stop looking for a job for a variety of reasons, including retirement, school, health concerns, family needs or discouragement about finding a job.

High numbers of both men and women have dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic, with 7.4 million leaving in September and 6.9 million in November, something Husted said is of particular concern as businesses continue to struggle to attract and keep a skilled workforce.

The loss of a wage earner hurts families in multiple ways, said Ann Riegle Crichton, executive director of Women in Business Networking at the Better Business Bureau of Dayton and Miami Valley.

Less money is available for necessities or discretionary spending, and they may fall behind on debt or delay health care.

Add to that the loss of wage growth and the ability to save for retirement and college for children, according to Crichton.

She worries that hard-won gains narrowing the pay gap between men and women will be eroded. Ohio women are paid 86 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to a 2019 Economic Policy Institute analysis.

“It’s not like everything was 100 percent solved before March. This is an avalanche on top of a snowstorm,” said Audrey Starr, director of marketing and communications for YWCA Dayton. “Women were barely keeping their heads above water.”

In July the U.S. Census found that 19.6 percent of working age adults said they were not working because they were caring for a child not in school or child care. By late November that number had declined to 6.5 percent nationally and 4.1 percent in Ohio.

Another 1.9 percent nationally and 2.3 percent in Ohio were not working because they were caring for an elderly person.

“Care work is critical infrastructure,” said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. “We just do not have the infrastructure like most other industrial countries do to make sure people are cared for and that jobs in the industry are paid well.”

She said better overall wages and paid family leave would help keep women in the workforce.

During the shutdown the state provided $166 million so child care centers could safely stay open for essential workers and to help low-income workers pay for child care, said Bret Crow, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. And once the economy reopened, the state used $90 million in federal funds to support child care providers.

The state made early childhood education a priority before the pandemic, Husted said, and that will continue in the upcoming budget. Keeping women in the workforce is good for the economy, he said, and both employers and government have a responsibility to help families with that.

“Companies have made strides offering flexibility for families as there are more families with both parents working or a working single parent,” Hederman said. “An increasing number of companies were allowing telework and flexible hours even before the pandemic, and the pandemic has ensured that more companies are now utilizing these practices and will keep them even after the pandemic ends.”

Aja Delaney and her two children, Maelina Spoores, center and Logan Rio Spoores collect eggs from the backyard chickens. Delaney works from home and is considering leaving her job if her kids' Montessori school has to close again due to the COVID-19.

Angelia Erbaugh, president of the Dayton Region Manufacturing Association, polled about 20 member companies and said none of them had parents leaving due to COVID-related child care issues.

“Several of them said they have made accommodations with those employees who have needs related to this, like shifting their hours to fit their child’s schedule,” Erbaugh said.

“If we can find anything good through these times, it would be that options became more prevalent to allow people to work from home and find a way to incorporate work into their family life. In years past, a woman or man would have had to choose to quit work or take care of the family,” said Chad Bridgman, director of work-based learning at Sinclair Community College. “The hope is that whenever possible, companies allow for this adaptation, thus allowing a woman to maintain her earning power.”

Since August the gap has widened between men and women’s labor force participation rate, which measures the percentage of the population working or looking for work. By September it grew to a 13.1 percentage point difference.

“People are having to make really hard decisions between safety and health for their families and also economic security,” Bateman said. “I think what this highlights is that our economy, even before the pandemic, was not an especially friendly one for women.”

The November jobs report showed the economy slowing as 245,000 jobs were added, nearly half as many as economists had expected and far short of the 610,000 added in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are 10.7 million unemployed people in the U.S. and the unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, a figure that does not include people who have dropped out of the labor force and are no longer searching for work.

“Being removed from work for a year or more would be hard for anyone. Connections and mentors could be lost, companies change directions, and technology continues to move forward.” Bridgman said.

Melissa Cutcher, executive director of Technology First in Dayton, said a big concern is how to get women back into the workforce at the level they left.

“When a woman leaves it’s harder to come back and nearly impossible to come back where she left off. And, at the same salary,” Cutcher said. “Continue to focus on your skills. Keep yourself fresh, in tune, in touch with what’s happening in your industry and your work.”

There are plenty of training opportunities available.

“The goal for anyone losing a job is to stay connected to the workforce and consider additional education,” Bridgman said. “Sinclair Community College can assist with identifying and enhancing skills and abilities”

“You can get these in-demand credentials so that when the economy picks up again there are opportunities for you to take advantage of,” said Husted, suggesting people look to the state’s TechCred and Individual Microcredential Assistance Program.

Shuler said the AFL-CIO also offers a variety of apprenticeship and training programs that can help women move into high paying, high skill jobs in advanced manufacturing.

“Take advantage of training opportunities at night while the kids are in bed,” Shuler said. “Online learning is perfect for the pandemic. There are so many resources that people shouldn’t feel alone.”

The gravity of the moment is also an opportunity for the country to fix problems, Starr said, particularly around support for working parents.

“It is a watershed moment,” Starr said. “We can build a better future for women and families.”

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