Women's workforce challenges pre-date COVID

Commentary by Kellie Campbell, Ed.D., VCW co-chair

If you have been to a restaurant lately, you have probably seen signs on the door about being short-staffed and asking for your patience. Perhaps you are a parent who received a message from your childcare provider about having to close early or shorten hours due to staffing challenges. If you have read the local newspaper, you might have seen an article about nursing shortages around the state. There is no way around it: times are tough and there are many systemic reasons we are faced with these challenges.

For many in certain fields of work, the challenges that surfaced during COVID were no surprise.  These challenges existed BEFORE COVID, with years of social structures that have perpetuated inequity. The fact is that many of the shortages we are witnessing in the workforce today are an outcome of women leaving the workforce. In Vermont, 91% of nurses are women, 82% of healthcare workers are women, 82% of personal care workers (including childcare professionals) are women, and 81% of tipped workers are women. These professionals were named as “essential workers” during the pandemic and were justly honored and recognized for their work and the critical role they play in our communities. But why are we challenged as we face another surge to keep the doors open to many of these services?

Nationwide, COVID is impacting women disproportionately. In Vermont, before COVID, women were at least four times more likely than men to reduce their hours or leave the workforce for a period of time to care for children and aging family members. Unemployment claims from the U.S. Department of Labor suggest Vermont women faced unemployment rates higher than men during COVID. Data from April and May of 2020, just after COVID hit, revealed over 80% of U.S. adults who weren’t working because they had to care for their children who were not in school or daycare were women.

As we approach a hopeful pivot from pandemic to endemic, we must find a way to re-engage women in the workforce by understanding the barriers that might prevent them from doing so. While we seek to rush back to normalcy, we must understand that for those who choose to re-engage, support is needed.

Many of these positions before the pandemic were lower paying. Tipped work is most often low-wage work, with a higher poverty rate for workers, and barriers such as a lack of regular schedules, no access to health benefits and paid time off, and little room for advancement. National research indicates the practice of tipping is often discriminatory as well, with white service workers receiving larger tips than Black service workers for the same quality of service.

In addition, the median salary for a lead preschool teacher is less than what Vermont estimates as the basic wage needed for a single adult to live on their own.  If you want engagement, you must recognize the lived realities. A Franklin County educator shares: “ I can remember crying in the parking lots during my lunch break – I would then go back and hold the children as they woke up. I spent my days holding them, wiping their noses, wiping their tears…we get sick every time they do.  We don’t all have healthcare, we don’t all have paid sick days – and even if we do, we don’t always have the support or ability to take them.  I left the classroom.  It is not sustainable.”

Let’s not rush to get back to the way things were. As we seek hope and look for normalcy, let’s understand we can and should do things better. To quote the recently released Public Assets Institute report: “The data are not all in, but one thing is clear: Universal healthcare, livable wages, affordable childcare, and paid family leave would improve the lives of all workers and their families.” With increased awareness and attention to these inequities, we’re seeing public policy conversations about labor in our state evolve and focus on changing the status quo, responding to, and supporting women and BIPOC workers. This is progress, but we have more to do.

For sources and resources referenced: https://women.vermont.gov/help/publications