(BIGIFTRUE) — During the pandemic, Tierra Yates dealt with a furlough and unemployment before she landed a new job at a property management company in Charlotte, North Carolina. In July, at the end of her first week there, she learned she had been exposed to covid-19 before starting the job.
“So I’m saying to myself, how am I going to explain to my job that now I need to go and get tested and stay out until my test comes back?” she said. “It was pretty stressful.”
She tested positive for covid, mandating a two-week quarantine. Her job agreed to let her train and work from home for the two weeks, and Yates, who is a single mother, sent her four children to stay with their grandmother in Virginia so she wouldn’t infect them.
In the following weeks, she returned to the office, and her kids came home, where all of them started virtual classes while relying on spotty internet service.
“That was all hitting at the same time,” she said. “I’m trying to start a new job. I’m trying to get adjusted to my kids and this whole learning from home thing. And, of course, we had all kinds of connection issues. You name it, it took place.”
In an incredible stroke of luck, Yates’ office is right across the street from her house, which allows her to check in with her children during her lunch break. But balancing all of this has taken a mental toll.
“I come home on lunch, and now it’s splitting my time between eating, personal stuff and then also with them,” she said. “And the same thing when I get home at the end of the day. I have to make sure, okay, what do you guys have for homework? I really feel like there is no break.”
Nearly a year since the first covid-19 outbreak, low-income working women, especially mothers, are experiencing some of the greatest financial setbacks resulting from the pandemic. Between February and May, 11.5 million women lost their jobs, compared to 9 million men, according to a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
This disproportionate job loss is one sign of the first American recession where women’s financial losses are greater than men’s. Women dominate professions that were heavily affected by the virus, so they were more likely to be laid off or furloughed. Many were forced to leave their jobs in the face of additional childcare duties resulting from daycare and school closures.
And employment experts say that women who leave the workforce during the pandemic may have difficulty returning and could suffer a decline in their lifelong earnings.
Why women have lost more jobs
During the pandemic, both women and men have reduced their work hours, but women have cut their hours 20 to 50% more than men, according to a study published over the summer in the academic journal Gender, Work and Organization.
This trend has two main causes, said sociologist and Maryland Population Research Center faculty affiliate Liana Christin Landivar, who co-authored the study.
“Women have taken on a larger share of caregiving and expanded homeschooling obligations, and have been more vulnerable to employment disruptions, because this recession has affected jobs that employ a large share of women,” she said.
The Pew Research Center reported that as of February, nearly half of all jobs held by women in the United States were in the sectors of leisure and hospitality, education, health services and retail. These sectors also account for 59% of covid-related job loss, exposing women to a much higher risk of unemployment during the pandemic.
“About a third of women work in just 10 occupations,” Landivar said. “This has left them concentrated in jobs that have been vulnerable during the recession, as well as increased their exposure as frontline and essential workers with few options to work from home.”
Alyssa Vasquez, 29, was a retail employee before the pandemic, working part-time at a Hallmark store in Amarillo, Texas. She had also just returned to school full time.
“I was in a relationship at the time, so I was able to work part-time and not have to worry about rent,” she said.
In February, she got sick, and one of her symptoms was a persistent cough that still plagues her to this day. She now believes that cough was a symptom of covid.
“When covid hit, my job shut down, and I didn’t get sick leave or paid time off,” she said. “So when I was interviewing for jobs, they were really skeptical about letting me work with them because they thought I had it.”
She struggled to access her unemployment benefits, and near the peak of the pandemic in the spring, she and her partner broke up.
“I had to move out, I wasn’t working and I didn’t have a home,” she said. “So I was couchsurfing and still going to school. It was frightening, being uncertain of where you’re going to sleep that night and not wanting to bother your friends and family and whatnot. And then, (I was) still trying to keep up with school stuff even though I didn’t have internet sometimes and access to a computer. So it was really stressful.”
She landed a part-time job with Amarillo College, where she studies business administration, and she has moved in with her parents. She’s saving money but hasn’t found full-time work.
When the Hallmark store reopened, Vasquez hoped to get her old job back. Vasquez told the store owner she believed she had contracted covid-19 in the spring, so the employer wanted her to provide a negative test before beginning work. Her test came back positive.
“I don’t have any symptoms, except my cough, which will not go away,” she said. “It’s been almost two months now (since my first positive test), and I’m still testing positive for it, so I’m unable to work at that store because she won’t let me back until I test negative.”
Amarillo College’s Advocacy and Resource Center helps students like Vasquez combat barriers that may stand in the way of their academic success. Ashley Guinn, a social services coordinator for the program, says the center has seen an increase in students of both genders seeking support for basic needs like housing, utility assistance, food and mental health services.
“We are seeing students for the first time who have either experienced job loss or who have been furloughed,” she said. “We are also seeing students who have tested positive for covid-19 and, due to that, they’ve had to miss work and haven’t been paid for it. Or their children have had to quarantine or maybe their entire household has had to quarantine, and that is an extended time that you’re out of work and not receiving paychecks, especially if you don’t have health benefits or paid time off.”
Only 8% of workers in the service industry and 13% of leisure and hospitality workers have been able to work from home during the pandemic. The struggle of workers in these industries is compounded by the fact that they are mostly low-wage earners to begin with. Last year, 4 in 10 women working full time in the service industry made less than $500 per week, which falls under the federal poverty level for a family of four.
Kerry Barr O’Connor is the executive director of the Charlotte, North Carolina branch of Dress for Success, a nonprofit that provides workforce development services for women.
“We are seeing the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has on women,” she said. “Women are leaving the workforce four times to a man leaving the workforce. A lot of the clients we serve — low to moderate income — are in the industries greatly impacted by it, like hospitality and tourism, entertainment.”
Before the pandemic, women on average earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men.
“Women earn less than men, and among heterosexual couples, women’s lower earnings do contribute to reduced employment,” Landivar said. “Especially in times of recession and when finances are less stable, men and women may prioritize the primary earner to avoid further economic peril.”
Women bear more child care duties
Before covid, women in the United States spent 37% more time on household and care work than men.
Black and Latina women have been harder hit by covid-related job loss than white women. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, between February and September of this year, the number of white women in the labor force fell by 3%, while that number fell by 6% for Black women and about 8% for Latina women.
Landivar said that some of the reasons women are leaving jobs more often than men are difficulty accessing child care and increased homeschooling responsibilities.
Many single mothers face those issues but lack the option to quit working.
In Charlotte, 86% of the women served by Dress for Success are mothers. Out of those mothers, 80% are single, and 10% are parenting grandchildren and next of kin.
“They have been forced to leave their jobs not only because of shutdowns, but also because their children are at home or homeschooling and they have no child care,” Barr O’Connor said of her clients.
Sarah Rios is a mother of two school-aged children living in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, a nurse with a two-days-on, two-days-off schedule, have both continued to work full time during the pandemic while managing remote school for their 10 and 7 year olds.
“We can’t afford for me to leave my job or I would have done it already,” Rios said in an online chat. “Sometimes it’s too much trying to do my own work while supervising my kids and making sure they get all their stuff done. I either drop my work or let some of their schoolwork slide if I’m trending toward (being overwhelmed). It would be better for my mental health and my family’s mental health if I were able to slow down.”
Despite a conscious effort to be fair in their household responsibilities, sometimes Rios finds herself picking up the slack.
“We try to split evenly, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” she said. “If the kids get behind on a day he’s home, I’ll try to make it up on my day home, but I don’t ask the reverse.”
The compounded impact on single mothers
More women than men are single parents who provide primary child care, which creates its own unique set of challenges in the face of employment and the pandemic.
“It hasn’t been easy on anyone, but the young moms that are trying to do this on their own — it’s even harder on them,” said Dr. Teresa Baker, director of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s residency program for obstetrics and gynecology in Amarillo.
Baker said that she has seen rates of postpartum depression double, and many single mothers are going without health care because they can’t bring their children with them to doctor’s appointments.
“If you have children, you’re in a real fix, because they’re not letting any children or any visitors to the clinic,” she said. “So if you’re a single mom, what are you going to do with your child while you go to your clinic visit? It’s just a mess.”
Sharisse Tracey is a divorced mother who works as an academic advisor with the State University of New York, and her 14-year-old daughter is attending school remotely.
“The fact that I’m in a profession that allows me to work from home is an incredible blessing,” Tracey said.
Still, Tracey is quick to highlight the difficulty of trying to balance paid work and remote schooling along with everything else.
“I’m still working nine hours a day, I’m still responsible for my students for those nine hours, I’m still on Zoom, I’m still in meetings, I’m still at conferences, I’m still at seminars, I’m still all of that, so I wasn’t able to keep an eye out as much for my kid as I would’ve thought,” she said. “I’m more fortunate than I realize because I am home, and even with that, I’m still not doing as good of a job as I would’ve liked.”
“This report is from Big If True, a 501(c)(3) news nonprofit based in Oklahoma City. Big If True is currently focused on stories about how low-income Americans have been impacted by the pandemic.”