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Capitol Alert

Paying $2,000 a month to keep a career: How the COVID pandemic set back California women

 
 

Gaby Martinez had been working for the Stanislaus Public Library for years, and she loved her job in the youth services division. She got to connect with students and parents, promote early literacy and even work with the maximum security wing of a juvenile detention center to give books to incarcerated young adults.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic brought life to a grinding halt last spring, the library closed. Martinez, a single mother of three who also lives with her elderly mother, suddenly lost her part-time job and her family’s only source of income.

She filed for unemployment, but due to departmental backlogs and difficulties, could only access benefits in June, months after she lost her job. Martinez, who lives in Turlock, worried about paying bills and having to dip into her savings.

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“There were times where I had late fees and I had to question, ‘What am I going to pay; what am I not going to pay?’” Martinez said.

After a handful of small jobs over the summer — a weekend of contact tracing, a month of organizing lunchtime book pickup events with her former supervisor — Martinez finally got a more permanent position with the county’s emergency services hotline in September.

“I trust God, pretty much for everything,” Martinez said. “It hasn’t always been easy. There have been times where I cry in the shower because I don’t want my family to hear me, because it’s a lot of pressure.”

Martinez’s story is reflected in countless other women across California. As COVID-19 ravaged the nation, economists and researchers began noticing that the ensuing shutdowns and coinciding job losses were affecting women at disproportionately higher rates than men.

The pandemic has caused more California women than men to lose their jobs, a discrepancy that persists as the California’s economy improves, the latest state data show.

About 11% of California women 16 and older were unemployed and seeking work, on average, each month during 2020, compared to 9.5% of men. In 2019, by comparison, the unemployment rate was the same – 4.1% – for California women as it was for men.

Sarah Bohn, vice president of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, said she and her colleagues began noticing the pandemic gender gap early on.

“It jumped out at you that, especially during the first few months of the pandemic, this gap emerged in the unemployment situation for women, relative to men,” Bohn said.

In past recessions, like the 2008 financial crisis, men had typically lost their jobs at higher rates than women, Bohn said, but the pandemic-induced economic crisis is different. She and her colleagues identified a number of factors that put women, and especially women of color, at a higher risk of unemployment across the state.

Women are more likely to work in sectors impacted by pandemic closures, like the service, leisure and hospitality industries. Those sectors were decimated at the pandemic’s outset.

Women also make up a large proportion of the essential workforce, and staying in those jobs now carries a higher level of risk. Finally, Bohn said, women are more likely to take on caregiver roles for children and elderly relatives.

“Even in families where there are two or more working adults, if there are children, women still spend more of their time caring for them,” she said.

While Bohn said the gap in unemployment narrowed at the end of 2020, with seasonal work up over the holiday season, women’s unemployment rates are rising again.

Women of color hit especially hard

In California, Bohn added, women of color are even more affected by unemployment.

“Latina women are affected more than women of Asian descent or white women in California because they are much more likely to work in the sectors that have been hardest hit, and Black women are really over-represented in frontline sectors,” she said.

Helen Torres, the CEO of Los Angeles-based Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), and her team have been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on Latinas across the state.

Nearly 30% of all Latinas and 36% of undocumented Latinas lost their jobs during the first months of the pandemic, Torres said. Since then, they’ve observed small gains, but there’s still a long way to go until Latinas in California have recovered.

Though undocumented workers were eligible for state benefits under the Golden State Stimulus, those funds ran out quickly, and undocumented workers don’t qualify for federal aid.

Torres said for these women especially, it’s crucial that community organizations — like health clinics and childcare centers — and schools receive support so they can benefit through indirect assistance.

Underlying issues are now at the forefront

The pandemic has served to highlight ongoing issues facing women across the state that in normal circumstances would stay hidden, said Jenya Cassidy, the director of the California Work & Family Coalition.

Cassidy said the lack of a robust safety net, coupled with a high level of poverty and a high cost of living, leaves people across California “on the edge” of financial crisis, especially as debts multiply and they spend more time outside of the workforce.

She said more protections — like a guarantee that workers can return to their jobs once it’s safe, regular financial support and other measures — would remove a lot of COVID-related anxieties and ease burdens for families across the state.

“I hope long-term that we really learn how important and vital a safety net is, not just for the economic well-being, but literally for public health,” she said, “and also how much women and people of color in this state are really bearing the brunt of it.”

State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, said one of the greatest burdens facing women during the pandemic is a lack of access to childcare, especially since women tend to be in lower paying jobs and women of color tend to be more represented in service industries.

“They paid a huge price,” she said, “because there was no income coming in from their (jobs) and then they were primarily responsible for all of the household chores, which include their kids but then also making sure that the household is running and that the tasks of cleaning and everything else are taken care of.”

The infusion of state dollars into childcare facilities, as well as the child tax relief credit included in the new stimulus package seek to relieve some of that stress, she said.

‘We pay about $2,000 a month so that I can keep my career’

The issue of childcare is forcing some women, like Jeannee Wainscott, a part-time physician assistant in Sacramento with two boys, to weigh whether or not they can afford to maintain their own careers.

Wainscott ended up hiring a nanny to watch her 6 and 8-year-old sons while she’s at work. Her husband, also a physician assistant, works full time.

Though Wainscott and her husband’s combined salaries meant they didn’t qualify for any stimulus payments over the past year, hiring a nanny was outside of their budget pre-pandemic. But they’re making ends meet so that she can continue to go to work, and most of the nanny’s salary is coming from her own earnings.

“We pay about $2,000 a month so that I can work, I can keep my career,” she said. “I know a lot of women out there don’t have that luxury, and that they had to make a choice between their career and taking care of their children.”

Her kids have been doing well with distance learning, Wainscott said, but she thinks that’s largely to do with the supervision they get from her and the nanny.

She and her husband don’t plan on employing a nanny once her kids are back at school full-time, but she worries about how often she’ll have to take off work if they get sick, and if workplaces will become more lenient with their policies.

“My concern for next year is, before, you could send your child to school with a common cold,” Wainscott said. “You could send your kids to school if they had a little bit of a cough. Well, that’s no longer going to be the case.”

‘The pressure of going to work and providing’

Some couples, like Andrea Muraki and her husband, can’t afford extra childcare, meaning their kids are navigating distance learning on their own.

Muraki worked for years as a server in fine-dining restaurants in Sacramento. When the pandemic caused the restaurant she worked at to shut down, she took a job at the co-op grocery store her husband works at to make ends meet and ensure her family had health insurance benefits.

Despite years of experience with wine, beer and spirits as part of the restaurant industry, Muraki wasn’t able to get a higher starting salary in her new role as a buyer for specialty products at the supermarket.

Three of their kids still live at home — a 14-year-old daughter and 13-year-old twin girls — and have had to manage online school by themselves while she and her husband work 40 plus hours each week.

Her twins have struggled with the adjustment, especially since they started middle school this school year and had never seen their campus, teachers or classmates in person. Muraki has gotten calls from the attendance office about their performance, but she can’t afford a tutor for them and isn’t home to make sure they stay on track.

“We are paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Because they’re both essential workers and exposed to lots of people at their job, Muraki and her husband have kept their family fairly isolated to not risk infecting anyone with COVID-19.

The past year, Muraki said, has taken a toll.

“It’s a lot of responsibility as a mom,” she said. “Even though the dad is there, he is present and he is great, it’s always, ‘Well, you’re the mom, figure it out.’ It’s the pressure of going to work and providing.”

Muraki said her husband is incredibly supportive, and they split up household chores evenly, but scheduling doctors’ appointments and answering school emails still largely falls to her.

“You have to be like Superwoman already,” she said, “clean the house, provide, make sure the kids are okay. (And now you’re) trying to maintain a family’s mental health within this small home.”

The Sacramento Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.

This story was produced with financial support from the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.

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