HB Lozito, the Executive Director of Out in the Open and Representative Taylor Small, the Pride Center of Vermont’s Director of Health & Wellness speak with Vermont Commission on Women (VCW) Commissioner Sarah Mell in this third podcast in the Commission’s Equal Pay Day series.
Equal Pay Day is a symbolic day chosen to illustrate the point into the current year to which women must work to earn as much money as men made in the year before due to the gender wage gap. With these video podcast conversations, VCW hopes to raise awareness about pay equity, and the ways racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism intersect, creating much larger wage gaps for women of color, women living with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Another goal of the project is to listen to women about their experiences with pay inequity, how it impacts them, and what they think could help.
Introduced by VCW's executive director Cary Brown, this episode explores equity and the economic impacts of COVID-19 in our LGBTQ + community. It also considers additional impacts to those community members living with disabilities and BIPOC members. The conversation touched on rising costs, lack of internet access, and lack of transportation, concerns shared with so many Vermonters during this time. Solutions explored included wage transparency and workplaces that support self-care practices, and that uplift and value their employees, cultivating an environment of connection and trust.
Megan Foote’s 3-year-old daughter had just started full-time child care -- after years of cobbling together care and relying on family and friends in Rutland County -- when the program had to shut down due to COVID-19.
Megan had to quickly pivot to working from home while caring for a toddler. From March to July 2020, Megan juggled attending Zoom meetings and entertaining her energetic 3-year-old. She was also pregnant with her second child.
“I just felt flustered all of the time. It was hard to feel like I wasn't giving 100% to anything, not as an employee and not as a parent,” Megan shared.
If her employer hadn’t been flexible and supportive, Megan said she would have had to quit and her family would have lost access to the health care benefits they rely on through her job (her husband is self-employed).
Megan’s now 10-month-old and 4-year-old daughters are both in full-time child care at programs she feels great about. The cost of full-time child care for two children, however, is more than Megan’s take-home pay.
Megan loves her job and feels like her children greatly benefit from being around kids their own age during the day. She also sees how much they are thriving with support from early educators who understand early childhood development.
“I love my job and I need to work to support my family. But without stable child care it’s just not possible,” Megan said. “I feel fortunate to have found spots for both my kids at high-quality programs and at the same time it’s a major financial stress. It just seems like it shouldn’t be this hard.”
Marikje Shelmandine took over her father’s beloved sauce and marinade business, “It’s Arthur’s Fault,” after he passed away suddenly in May 2018.
“My dad was this gregarious personality who everyone loved and he was a genius with sauces,” Marikje said. “But he wasn’t just my business partner, he was our child care.”
With no child care, Marikje strapped her infant in a baby carrier and tried to keep up with producing and selling “It’s Arthur’s Fault” products. But it wasn’t exactly practical or safe to cook boiling sauces and package products in her kitchen with a baby in tow.
Marikje was cobbling together care and keeping the business afloat. Then she became pregnant with her second child, then the pandemic hit and then the child care center that she had finally found a spot in for her older child closed its doors -- permanently.
“I had plans to go back to work after Artie was born. I was going to take a six week to three month maternity leave. But when child care fell through my business came to a complete standstill,” Marikje said.
By August of 2020, Marikje felt like she had no choice other than to put the business aside. “It’s so sad because the business was poised for such growth. ‘It’s Arthur’s Fault’ has been in Vermont for 21 years and we have such a committed following. But I just can’t make it work without child care,” Marikje said.
Marikje’s son Artie is now 16 months old. Her daughter Katherine is 4-and-a-half and starting preschool (but only three days a week). She wants to get the business back up and running but she doesn’t think she will be able to do it at the same level as before until Artie starts kindergarten.
“What I want to say is that if Vermont wants this business back, child care is the barrier,” Marikje said.
Marikje knows that stepping out of the workforce not only has immediate economic consequences for her family. Research shows time out of the workforce also has long-term impacts on the economic stability of women and their families. For example, a woman earning Vermont’s median income of $56,990 would lose out on $610,050 over her lifetime if she had a child at age 35 and remained out of the workforce until the child was eligible to enroll in kindergarten.
When women can’t succeed in the workforce, it doesn’t just hurt them and their families, it hurts Vermont’s economy now and in the future.
When the pandemic hit, Cara Tobin had a 7-month-old and a 4-year-old at home and was working 50-plus hours a week as the chef/owner of Honey Road in Burlington.
In the initial weeks, her husband cut back his work hours so Cara could be in the restaurant. But that was a short-term solution. “Eventually we had to hire more people in the kitchen because I had no child care and couldn’t be there,” Cara said.
As the pandemic wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry across the country, Cara’s business had to take on extra expenses because she and her employees were juggling parenting without school or child care.
“We only operate four days a week because we don’t have enough coverage; we’re constantly juggling each other’s schedules and child care needs,” Cara said. “Even with assistance from PPP loans and state grants, we’ve been losing money every week and every month.”
Cara put her infant on waitlists for child care programs before the pandemic started. A year and a half later she still hasn’t found a child care spot for the now 2-year-old. “Now we have him on lists for preschool for the fall of 2022,” Cara said.
The irony of all this is that Cara opened Honey Road with a vision to create a restaurant counter-culture that supports parents, especially women, to be able to balance raising a family with a career in the restaurant industry.
“I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 17. But I never saw examples of what it would be like to be a mother in the industry,” said Cara.
When she had her first child she was managing a kitchen at a restaurant in Boston and had worked 50-plus hours a week throughout her pregnancy. After the baby was born, Cara was back to work after only four weeks and all her vacation time was used up. “It was insane. I never saw my husband; we were hand-off parenting all the time,” Cara said.
When she decided to move to Vermont and open her own restaurant, Cara said: “I told my business partner, I want people to feel like they can have a family and they can still work in the restaurant industry.”
Cara designed her business so that employees have a lot more flexibility with their schedules than most restaurants allow. She also offers paid family leave (12 weeks for full time managers).
Cara is determined to do her part to change restaurant culture from the inside and make it a career where women can thrive. But she knows the only real way for women to succeed in the male-dominated restaurant industry is for public policies and societal expectations to change.
“The restaurant industry, like so many others, is desperate for workers. Public policies giving women and families access to paid leave and affordable, quality child care are key to our economic recovery and to empowering women to enter and succeed workforces that desperately need their talent and leadership.”
It would be much easier for Taylor Mendell and her partner to keep their Starksboro farm running if they had access to child care for their 10-month-old son Theo.
“My job on the farm is not really replaceable in a lot of ways because in addition to the field work, I'm the HR manager, bookkeeper, and do all of our marketing. Running a farm and caring for an infant at the same time is a juggling act to say the least,” Taylor said.
Taylor loves providing sustainable, local food for her community. She loves engaging with community members and teaching new farmers. She feels a deep sense of responsibility to her employees and to her customers and that has only intensified during COVID.
“We’re so busy trying to keep our business running during COVID. We’ve needed to constantly adapt to keep up with heightened food safety measures,” Taylor explained.
Taylor has tried looking into child care options for Theo but hasn’t found anything that would work for her family. “Child care centers are so inundated with requests, especially for infants. I often don’t even get calls back. It’s just crickets,” Taylor said.
Even if she could find a spot, Taylor said they may not be able to afford it. “We're pretty rural, so after adding driving time to childcare rates, it’s cheaper for me not to work. Unfortunately I feel that hurts the quality of our business,” Taylor said.
Taylor said she feels for child care providers, who like farm workers, often make low wages for hard work with heightened personal risks during COVID. Both of them are also providing essential services for their communities: teaching young children and growing food.
“The truth of the matter is that without child care options I can't be there for my partner, my customers, or my employees in the way that I'd like to be. We need child care so that our business can thrive, so that we can thrive, and so that our employees can thrive. I even think we need child care for our child to thrive!” Taylor said.