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Kellie Campbell: What will it take to help women return to work?

Submitted by Ellie Lane on Tue, 02/14/2023 - 11:06

This commentary is by Kellie Campbell of Georgia, Vermont, a member of the Vermont Commission on Women and the chief information officer for the Vermont State Colleges System.

Announced a few short weeks ago, a nursing home — one of four in Orleans County, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom — will be closing in late March. 

Newport Healthcare Center will be putting 30 residents out of a home, leaving options for alternative care in short supply and a significant driving distance from families who live in a part of our state with limited public transportation options. 

A large part of the reason for closure referenced staffing shortages, an unfortunately not surprising reason. 

During the Covid pandemic, a large light was shone on our nurses and health care workers. They were — and are — essential to Vermonters’ overall health, and to Vermonters at all ages. We talk frequently about shortages of our health care workers, but have we fully considered some of the dependent reasons why we might be facing the shortage? 

Over 82% of health care workers in Vermont are women and over 91% of nurses are women. In a field with expanding workforce needs, women are generally four times more likely than men to cite leaving the workforce to care for family members and/or children. 

We saw trends during Covid that supported this statistic, with our own local workforce data signaling more women were leaving the workforce, aligning with national trends during Covid where women took on much of the burden of care for loved ones. 

As we face a post-pandemic world, the data doesn’t immediately shift back — in order to get many back to work, we must understand that the realities faced during Covid have a lasting impact. Legislative policies on deck for this session intersect with some of the most critical supports women (and healthy communities) need to return to the workforce. Items such as paid family and medical leave and child care-related policies that support both families and child care workers are critical to getting women back to work. 

The intersectional impact of these policies is important to highlight, for they not only support those in the workforce, but they also benefit families who need the support to care for their loved ones, and the home health care and residential care staffing shortages make the need greater. 

A young mom working in the health care field and living in northern Franklin County shared that, at 36 weeks pregnant, some of the quoted costs to have her child in a child care center were nearing $1,600 per month. The blunt reality is leaving her with an immediate decision — is it worth it leaving my newborn to barely bring home a paycheck after all of my expenses are covered? The race to find child care, yet alone afford it, is a common reality among many young families looking to make a life in our state. 

Vermont is taking steps to try to address our workforce shortages — we see an example of this through a partnership with the Vermont State Colleges System to expand tuition and grants for Vermonters to get a degree in professions such as nursing and health care. 

And while the investments are strongly worthwhile, it is important to understand that the solutions to ensuring a strong workforce must be intersectional and will require other investments.