R.I.’s ‘she-cession’: Pandemic knocks many women out of workforce, and some are pushing for solutions

By Nancy Lavin -

November 13, 2020 4:00 am

 

 

FLEXIBLE: Patricia Steere, owner of Steere Engineering Inc., allows employees with young children to adjust their hours because of an increase in remote learning. Steele, herself, had the experience of balancing work with family needs. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

 

After a three-month maternity leave, Jill Boni was eager to return to her job as director of Bright Start ­Academy, a Smithfield preschool.

 

That never happened. Boni’s scheduled first day back in March was also the same day Gov. Gina M. Raimondo issued stay-at-home orders for the state, forcing Bright Start, along with other child care facilities and schools across the state, to ­shutter.

So Boni applied for unemployment benefits and set her sights on the fall, planning all summer for the logistics of reopening with her nine female co-workers. But then enrollment plummeted, and weeks before the school was slated to open, the owner decided to close permanently.

 

Boni was devastated, and scared.

 

Not only did she lose a job she loved, but the flexibility it offered was crucial to her ability to work at all. As the primary caregiver for three boys – a 10-month-old, a preschooler and a teenage stepson – the standard 9-to-5 job was not an option for Boni.

 

She has continued a job search amid the near-constant care her infant and 5-year-old require, but she has not found anything with the hours or remote-work options she needs.

 

Her situation is not uncommon. Women across the state and the country have disproportionately borne the brunt of employment losses caused by the pandemic, in no small part due to their caregiving responsibilities.

 

SIDELINED: Jill Boni’s job as a preschool director fit well with her responsibilities as a mother. Her workday ended the same time as day care for her youngest two sons, Angelo, 5, and Gino, 10 months. Now that her preschool closed, she hasn’t found a job with the right hours. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

 

Some, such as Boni, lost their jobs but are still on the hunt. When COVID-19 hit, unemployment among the state’s female labor force skyrocketed, from 3.1% in March to 20.1% by April, according to nonseasonally adjusted data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of September, the female unemployment rate was 10.4%, with 19,300 more unemployed women actively seeking work than in March. By contrast, the male unemployment rate was 9.1% in September with 7,200 more men unemployed in September compared with March.

 

Other women have left the labor force entirely because their homemaker responsibilities make it impossible to retain or find a job. In September alone, more than 860,000 women nationwide left the labor force, more than four times the number of men who dropped out, according to BLS data. While Rhode Island saw its entire labor force increase slightly from August to September, the female workforce remains 10,200 fewer than in March. By contrast, male labor force participation has increased by 3,500 in the same period.

 

And some women who are working may not be for much longer. A recent survey by Fidelity Investments Inc. found that 39% of employed women are considering scaling back hours or leaving their jobs due to caregiving responsibilities.

 

Recognizing the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women, the state, in conjunction with major employers, has made training and hiring of female workers a focus of its Back to Work RI job-training initiative, as well as existing programs and partnerships such as Computer Science for Rhode Island, PrepareRI and the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program, according to Scott R. Jensen, director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.

 

This includes confronting long-standing cultural and systemic barriers that have kept women out of industries such as manufacturing and technology, which, unlike the female-dominated hospitality, retail and tourism industries, have weathered the coronavirus crisis fairly well and are still growing.

 

‘DOWNSHIFTING’

Whether these efforts are enough to overcome the so-called “she-cession” is unclear.

 

“The reason 1 in 4 women [nationally] are downshifting their careers or leaving is precisely because the few supports that have been in existence, such as full-time schooling outside the home, are being taken away right now,” said Kelly Nevins, executive director for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. “It’s not just industries that need to change; it’s our country’s policies.”

 

Nevins believes the state’s job-training initiatives aren’t enough.

 

Better family care options, such as paid family leave for caregivers of both genders and subsidized child care for parents of all income levels, are among the top changes Nevins recommended to revive a decimated female workforce.

 

Lobbying efforts were derailed when the General Assembly stopped meeting after COVID-19 hit, but Nevins remains committed to pushing for these policy changes when the legislature reconvenes. While her initial efforts garnered little support beyond a small group of lawmakers, she hoped the gains by progressive Democrats in the November election would expand support.

 

Rhode Island is one of few states that offers unemployment benefits to parents through a temporary caregiver insurance policy enacted in 2014. Under COVID-19, parents whose children are at home due to distance learning or closed child care facilities qualify.

 

Many took advantage of this benefit; initial unemployment claims for family caregiving nearly tripled from February to March, with more than a 1,000% spike in the number of claims – from 127 to 1,476 – from parents asking for leave because their children were no longer able to attend school or day care, according to research published by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. Most of the claims were from women, the report stated.

 

The findings underscore the idea that child care continues to be a woman’s role, even in two-parent households, said Chantel Boyens, an Urban Insitute principal policy associate who authored the report.

 

Boni laughed when asked if she and her husband had considered having him stay home with the kids while she worked.

 

“That would never happen,” she said.

 

In part, it’s a financial decision. Her husband’s annual income as a CT scan supervisor at Rhode Island Hospital is more than she makes, even after her 20 years in early-childhood education. Since Boni lost her job, her husband has also turned a side hustle in real estate into a second full-time gig.

 

The disparities between the income of men and women can be self-perpetuating. When women take maternity leave or reduce hours to care for children, it can permanently alter their career trajectory, including their earning capacity, Boyens said.

 

Elaine Dickson’s resume is full of degrees and high-powered positions. She has a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a master’s degree in business, and she went back to school to pursue her passion for journalism. She recently combined her savvy in business, finance and communications to start a financial and business-strategy consulting firm, Mavenly Consultants LLC, while also running an international nonprofit she founded several years ago.

 

Despite the accomplishments, the Cumberland mother of four feels a pang of regret when she looks back on her career.

 

“I wasn’t able to chart the career I wanted,” she said.

 

That’s in no small part because of the multiple maternity leaves, “disastrous pregnancies” and part-time gigs she took in order to care for her children. Even when she was working, the “brutal” schedule of a high-powered banking job was difficult to maintain while caring for children.

 

Dickson recalled an incident in which one of her children, then in preschool, was bitten by another child. She was nearing hour 10 of her workday with no end in sight, prepping a senior manager for a presentation to Wall Street executives.

 

When the preschool called and she told her boss she had to leave, his reaction was not one of understanding.

 

“He told me, ‘You need to figure out your priorities,’ and it wasn’t, ‘Go take care of your child,’ ” Dickson said. “That ultimately pushed me much quicker to leave.”

 

SEARCH FOR A SOLUTION: Terry Mulryan Toomey, right, owner of special-events decor company Future Affairs Productions, has laid off 11 of her 12 employees during the pandemic. She’s selling off her vast inventory in hopes of making ends meet for now. At left is Emily Wright, senior event group manager. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

 

LESS THAN WELCOMING

The work expectations and cultural norms that characterize some of the top-growing industries in the state, such as technology, manufacturing and construction, are a major reason why women avoid those jobs in favor of “more-welcoming” environments in retail and tourism, Nevins said.

 

Anita Bruno, a lifelong carpenter, recalled multiple instances in which she has faced ­discrimination and harassment because of her gender: lewd comments from project foremen, and intimidation from male co-workers, who often were given more responsibility on the job despite less experience.

 

She often contemplated quitting, but she stuck with it, wanting to set an example for other women in what she considered to be a good-paying career with room for advancement. In 2018, Bruno started a nonprofit called R.I. Women in the Trades for this purpose.

 

But when the pandemic sent Bruno’s middle-school-age son home and she, as a single mother, had to oversee his distance learning, she could no longer report to work and was let go.

 

While construction and manufacturing companies have survived and even thrived in a way that hospitality and retail industries have not, many positions still require in-person work. Technology jobs, on the other hand, are better suited for a work-from-home model that may match up better with women’s child care responsibilities.

 

Jensen characterized technology as a more gender-neutral career, not marked by the kind of “boys club” mentality that stops women from seeking work in manufacturing or construction. Others disagreed.

 

Joe Devine, Tech Collective executive director, recounted numerous instances in which he saw women engineers asked to get coffee or relegated to administrative roles despite their credentials.

 

Tech Collective has tried, with some success, to encourage women to join the growing industry through a biannual women mentorship program and partnerships with secondary schools and colleges that introduce female students to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

 

Devine said local companies were also working to dissipate the “old boy barriers” that make their work environments unwelcoming to women.

 

But those networks still exist.

 

Kayla Davis, a student at the University of Rhode Island studying data science, recalled being the only Black woman among a group of 50-plus interns at a Boston health care analytics company in 2019. She said the other interns, mostly men, did not want to work with her, and while Davis consistently outperformed the benchmarks set for her, her application for a full-time position was denied when male peers without the same track record were hired.

 

“I felt like I constantly had to prove myself to the company, and that my intelligence was undermined or tested or questioned in a way the guys’ wasn’t,” she said.

 

Davis is in her sixth year of college after changing majors and reducing her course load to care for family members with health problems. She took the fall semester off to work at CVS Health Corp. and care for her grandfather, who has gout, but she hopes to complete her final semester and graduate in the spring.

 

Davis said establishing hiring goals or quotas for women in technology jobs is one way to improve the industry for female professionals.

 

NO QUOTAS

Jensen and the individual employers involved in Back to Work RI were reluctant to commit to quotas to ensure the training and jobs they are offering will go to women. But over half of the participants who have signed up as of October are female, Jensen said.

 

Steere Engineering Inc. also doesn’t set strict gender quotas when hiring, although half of its 25 workers are women, said Patricia Steere, company owner and president. That she is also a woman likely attracts young female engineers who want to work at her firm rather than the male-owned companies, Steere said.

 

Because of her experience as a mother, Steere has given flexibility to employees with young children. For example, she has let one worker cut back hours since the pandemic hit in order to accommodate her responsibilities supervising her child in distance learning.

 

“I spent my career going through that, working part-time or taking time off [for children], so I get that,” she said.

 

While Steere acknowledged the challenges she and other women have faced in the workforce, she didn’t think the havoc brought by the pandemic has created more problems for her as a female business owner than others in her field.

 

Terry Mulryan Toomey agreed. That the pandemic has killed all aspects of her event-staging and decor business, Future Affairs Productions, has little to do with her gender and everything to do with the industry.

 

Even the loan she received through the federal Paycheck Protection Program wasn’t enough to keep her 12 employees on staff after the loan was exhausted; she has since laid off all but one. And the bills, including the overhead on a 35,000-square-foot warehouse stocked with $1 million in event-decor inventory, keep piling up, forcing her to sell off much of the stock.

 

Mulryan Toomey insisted that “‘closing is not a word in my vocabulary,” and hoped changes to her business model, including an e-commerce store, would allow her to survive until large-scale events and gatherings resumed.

 

 

EMPLOYMENT GENDER GAP

UNEVEN REBOUND: Before the coronavirus struck in March, slightly more women (269,200) were employed than men (268,000) in Rhode Island. As the effects of the pandemic hit home over the next month, 67,200 of those women were no longer employed, compared with 23,200 of the men. While the overall numbers of employed men and women have improved over the months, females are still lagging. / Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

 

OPPORTUNITY OR NOT?

But the fate of the leisure and hospitality industry is also uncertain, and with it, the futures of the 60,000 people employed in the sector, most of whom are women.

While Jensen framed the decimation of women-dominant industries as an opportunity to retrain them in technology and manufacturing, Kristen Adamo, CEO and president of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, warned against retraining the workers of an industry on which the state is so dependent.

 

“That’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” she said. “The answer isn’t to retrain people not to be hospitality or event workers; it’s to support that workforce.”

Jensen responded that he didn’t anticipate retraining the entire hospitality workforce, or those in any other industry hurt by the pandemic. Instead, he wanted to offer a chance to earn an income to those who could be waiting several years for their careers to resume.

 

Just as important, Jensen said, are the long-term systemic changes such as federal paid family leave that can help women succeed in the workforce.

 

“We’ve had challenges for decades about getting money for child care to folks who need it,” he said. “The pandemic is forcing us to change the way we do things.”

But it could have lasting negative effects in other ways, according to Nevins.

Women who left the workforce during the pandemic won’t be able to pick up where they left off, losing money and advancement opportunities that will permanently shape the rest of their working careers, she said.

 

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. Contact her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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