As parts of Maine’s economy recover from the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, many women are being held back from getting a new job after being laid off or are dropping out of the workforce because of conflicting responsibilities at home.

The disproportionate effect on women of the pandemic-induced recession reveals pay inequities and the difficulty families have finding and paying for child care. It also could threaten decades of gains women have made in the workforce.

Abby Howell, 32, was able to keep working last year even with a toddler at home. Her husband took over child care during the day so she could focus on a demanding customer service job from their Biddeford home. In the evening, she took over when he left for his job as a restaurant manager.

But when Howell returned to work this winter after her second child was born, it became rapidly clear the situation was not sustainable.

“I had to stop working; it just wasn’t feasible,” Howell said. “Honestly, it came down to money and just peace of mind. It didn’t make financial sense for me to keep working and send our kids to daycare, and I didn’t want to put them in daycare and expose them to COVID. I’ve always worked; I’ve always had that independence of having my own paycheck and relying on myself.”

Maine women held a significant majority of the jobs at organizations that laid off the most workers during the pandemic, including those in health care, social assistance, hospitality, leisure and education, according to a recent Maine Department of Labor analysis.

The state lost more than 48,000 jobs between February and December of last year, and women had held 57 percent of those jobs, the department said. More women than men have filed continuing unemployment claims every month since the pandemic hit the state. In December, women accounted for 53 percent of state and federal unemployment claims. Maine’s population is about 51 percent female and 49 percent male.

PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS INEQUITY 

Howell never intended to stay at her job for the rest of her career, but she said leaving still felt like a step in the wrong direction. She wants to go to nursing school but has no idea when she could start.

“I think anything you are forced to decide, not completely wanting to do it out of your own volition, is a setback,” she said. “If there is not a shift in the workplace where companies and employers are willing to bend and help families and work around their schedules, I don’t see how this is sustainable (in the) long term.”

Joblessness has hit the female workforce across the country. Women who lost their jobs sometimes have found it hard to return to work because of child and family care obligations, remote schooling or because of a mismatch between skills and job requirements.

“Generally speaking, in terms of job losses by sector, what has happened in Maine is very similar to what has happened nationally,” said Mark McInerney, director at the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the state labor department.

Some women have dropped out of the workforce entirely, though the total number is hard to gauge, McInerney said. State labor economists believe the totality of unemployment in the state is not fully recorded because of shortfalls in monthly household surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, it’s clear that the number of women working in Maine has declined during the pandemic. While both men and women have dropped out of the workforce in alarming numbers since the pandemic began, women’s workforce participation since last spring has hovered around 55 percent, the lowest it has been in 30 years.

If those figures persist, it could be a setback for decades-long efforts to increase female participation in the workforce, and also for those women who lost their jobs or had to leave work to take care of family.

“I think when you have folks that might have lost their job in the spring of 2020 and through that period have been unemployed, there is concern that has a long-term scarring effect,” McInerney said.

Existing constraints on women’s participation in the Maine workforce and economy have been brought to light by the pandemic. A lack of affordable, safe and accessible early child care, the high concentration of women in low-wage jobs, and the pay disparity between women and men have contributed to worse outcomes for women during the pandemic-induced recession.

“The impact of COVID-19 is to exacerbate gender inequality, and we can see that in the struggle women have had staying in the workforce,” said Destie Hohman Sprague, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “I hope policymakers think about rebuilding after the pandemic that really addresses the things that were broken in the first place.”

CHILD CARE CRISIS EXPOSED

Child care and remote or hybrid education rise to the top of the list of challenges facing Maine’s female workforce, Sprague said. The pandemic made child care more expensive and inaccessible to families than before. Many Maine schools are not teaching students in person full time and are using hybrid learning instead, with a mix of remote and in-person instruction. That model, designed to limit the spread of disease, makes it tough for working parents, especially those in jobs that don’t offer flexible hours or remote work.

“The pressure of managing child care we know falls overwhelmingly to women,” Sprague said. “We are realizing how essential child care is to the operation of families and to the economy. People can’t stay in the workforce if they don’t have child care.”

Ninety-two percent of Maine’s licensed child care providers are now open, compared with about half that were open last spring, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The state provided more than $18 million to child care providers to keep them open and gave weekly stipends to eligible families to help cover child care costs.

Even if providers are open, most are not taking in as many children as they normally would because of pandemic restrictions and best practices, said Tara Williams, executive director of the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children. Even if they are open, unscheduled closures or staff absences because of real or suspected COVID-19 cases make regular care unreliable. Moreover, Maine’s child care workforce is dominated by women, who have their own children and home responsibilities, challenging their ability to keep their own jobs.

“The constant instability is too much to interrupt a job that doesn’t allow for it,” Williams said.

Those constraints, combined with schools being closed to in-person learning, left some parents facing tough economic decisions, even if neither had lost a job. Women contribute more to child and family care than men, but tend to earn less money. In 2018, Maine women with full-time jobs made 83 cents on the dollar compared with men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The earning disparity for Black women was even starker: 65 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

Williams speaks from personal experience – last summer, she was on the verge of leaving her job to take care of two young children at home while her husband worked full time.

“I make significantly less than he does,” Williams said. “Economically, it made the best sense for our family that if one of us was going to leave work, it would have been me.”

St. Louis Child Development Center in Biddeford reopened as soon as it could last May, but it has been operating at half capacity since then in an effort to prevent COVID-19 infections, said Bill Hager, the center’s director. That means it has space for just 55 kids, from 6 weeks old up to elementary-school age.

Hager understands that puts parents in a tough position, especially those who work low-paying jobs that can’t be done remotely. He gets calls almost every day from parents who need a safe place for their children so they can go to their jobs.

“Parents’ ability to work has to be 50 percent of our goal,” Hager said. “We can’t do child care by Zoom. We can’t do remote learning because, even though the children might get something from that, it doesn’t do a darn thing for parents who have to get to work by 8:30 in the morning.”

The Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee’s final report, issued in November, said Maine needs to invest in child care to get the state back on its feet and help spur economic growth. Among its recommendations were using bonding to improve child care infrastructure, help working families pay for early care and education, and give all 4-year-olds access to pre-kindergarten programs. It also advocated for training, education and better pay for child care workers.

Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, intends to reintroduce a bill he proposed last year that would help professionalize the state’s underpaid early child educators. The bill would expand training and education opportunities and provide salary supplements, too.

“Primarily women are working in child care and early education, in these low-wage jobs without any distinct path toward upward mobility,” Fecteau said. “Then you have women who rely on child care to go to their own places of employment. On both ends of this are those women who suffer the most because they do not have safe, reliable and affordable child care for their kids.”

WILL MAINE FIX THE PROBLEM?

Jen Williams Ladd, 39, managed to keep her job as a civil engineer and manage two kids ages 4 and 6 for a year, but she doesn’t know how long she can keep going.

Ladd’s husband works in construction and is often gone overnight or for weeks at a time from their Scarborough home, so she was accustomed to taking care of the kids and working a full-time job, but not when schools and daycare closed last year.

“So many of the pieces of that really fragile system fell out of the bottom,” she said.

Things have improved – her son goes to school three days a week, and her daughter was lucky enough to get into a daycare facility that can take her every day. But Ladd recognizes how fortunate her family is to have found and been able to afford daily child care. That hasn’t stopped regular household discussions about the future of her job, and whether it makes sense for her to leave and take care of the kids full time.

“I work in a heavily male-dominated field,” Ladd said. “I just can’t help but wonder how many of my male counterparts have to weigh the same decisions. It’s not many, I know that.”

Her biggest fear is that after the pandemic, the situation will go back to normal and none of the underlying problems – like Maine’s broken child care system – will be addressed.

“I believe it is so slow to change because the people who are most directly affected by it are working moms, and they are too busy to make any noise about it,” Ladd said.

It’s an open question what will happen, after the pandemic eases, to women who have lost their jobs or dropped out of the workforce. It is unclear when the hardest-hit economic sectors such as hospitality and entertainment will recover to pre-pandemic job levels, and when child care facilities and schools will reopen fully.

That leaves policymakers in a position to examine how to improve women’s economic security and open pathways out of “occupational segregation” in jobs with low wages, little flexibility and fewer opportunities to advance, said Gilda Nardone, chair of the Women’s Employment Committee on the state workforce board.

“We are starting to ask ourselves, ‘What more can we do so women are aware of the resources that are out there to support them, to know they have support, and people are there to help them take the next step, whatever that is?'” Nardone said. “We want women to know there are other high-growth opportunities out there, and education that can get them a better career pathway that can get them a higher-paying occupation.”

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