CLEVELAND — Boosting the workforce to where it was pre-pandemic continues to be a challenge for industries nationwide.
Data from the National Women’s Law Center said in November, the women’s labor force participation rate was just 57.5%. It's an increase from October, but before the pandemic, the rate hadn’t been that low since 1989.
The NWLC said since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 1.4 million women have left the labor force compared to just over 921,000 men.
Pandemic shutdowns made Natalie Hart realize she needed something more stable than her 20+ year career in the hospitality and customer service industry to support her 5-year-old daughter, Nova, who just started kindergarten.
“My plan was to switch to days anyway and with the pandemic really kind of halting the hospitality industry, there is not any opportunity really to work a day shift and make a living, and it's impossible for me to work nights with her schedule,” said Hart. “I couldn't find a single daycare that was in my area on the west side that was open at night. They all closed at 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m.”
Since September, she’s been looking for office work, but it hasn’t been easy.
“I feel like a lot of jobs too are offering hours centered around two-person or two-parent households, which is just not the case for most people,” said Hart. “I've actually had to turn down quite a few jobs because it's not the standard nine to five. They want you there at 8 a.m. from like 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. And my daughter doesn't go to school until 8 a.m.”
Hart isn’t alone in her struggles to find a job that works for her schedule.
“Why aren't women going back to work? Because there's a couple of key reasons. One is the availability and affordability of childcare. Affordability was an issue long before the pandemic, but now the availability of childcare because there's been childcare closures,” said Bishara Addision, the director of job preparation at the Fund for Our Economic Future.
The Fund for Our Economic Future is a philanthropic and civic alliance of over 40 organizations across Northeast Ohio that pool their resources together to invest and create a creative space around job preparation, job access and job creation.
Addison said FFEF is developing research in partnership with Policy Bridge, Team NEO, Conxus NEO, and Summit & Medina Workforce Area Council of Governments about where all the workers are and why they’re not working.
She said in addition to child care needs, the effects of school closures and caregiving for older relatives also typically fall on women’s shoulders, and many workplaces aren’t filling those needs for flexibility.
“Women are making rational decisions for themselves that if I have all these other responsibilities, how is my workplace creating an environment where I can both manage those responsibilities and lend my skills and feel purposeful in my work?” said Addison. “And at the moment, we haven't quite caught up with the kind of workplace design to match the needs of many women.”
She said a disproportionate number of women often fill roles in the retail, hospitality, childcare, and education industries, so many of those operations must continue while understaffed or are forced to close.
“Those jobs are necessary for us to be able to maintain our supply chain, because if women had childcare, they would be filling those positions which would allow for other folks to be able to deploy their skills into other arenas,” said Addison. “And so the impact on the broader labor market when women aren't going to work – aside from loss of income and the impact on being able to take care of your household – is that it disrupts the whole supply chain.”
However, Addison said women still have to provide for their families and believes they’re still working, but in other ways.
“I'd bet that there's a concentration of workers that are possibly in tech-enabled positions like the gig economy. So thinking about Instacart or DoorDash, or any of these kinds of delivery companies,” said Addison. “And what's significant about those isn't necessarily their wages or compensation to the issue that you raise. It's the flexibility in scheduling that those jobs offer so they can work on a schedule that works for them.”
So how do employers make jobs worth a woman’s while?
“In the short term, raising wages is directionally correct. That alone will not yield women coming back to work or anyone for that matter,” said Addison. “As you can see, employers are raising wages and they're still having trouble finding people, but it is a foundational important component. So that's part of the short-term strategy.”
Addison said mid-term strategies include job redesign, which is a set of tools and strategies that improve on how a person benefits from a job. That might include financial and tuition assistance, supervisory training, racial equity training, and better scheduling.
Another mid-term strategy is for employers to listen to their employees’ concerns about the workplace.
In the long-term, Addison said employers should make critical investments into their business, including innovating and designing transportation strategies for frontline workers or relocating closer to where their employees live. Also, addressing the “benefits cliff.”
“Individuals do receive public benefits, often working in kind of lower-wage work. And at some point, even with promotions, you are not better off with the promotion than you would be if you stayed in a lower wage position and maintained benefits,” said Addison. “This is not to say that people want to stay on benefits. No one dreams of being on public benefits. So that's not the issue. It's that they're looking at the trade-off that earning a little bit more is not going to help them cover very real costs like childcare, one of the affordability issues that we have to address for women.”
“So until we address either and/or the affordability issue and accessibility of childcare, or we have to make the value proposition of going to work financially valuable enough, where people want to choose that over staying in a lower wage position, or not working and just relying on benefits,” said Addison. “So we have to change the value proposition of going to work, because right now, it's not enough to cover people's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs."
Hart agrees with the idea of job redesign and thinks it would help her and others in her situation.
“Instead of getting one person to work this 10-hour shift, you know, maybe split the shift. You could find two good people who have the same kind of schedule that they need to work around and they can make that work versus just trying to find one person to work all these hours,” said Hart.
But for now, she’s just trying to make ends meet. She said she’s living off her savings and credit cards during the job hunt, and staying optimistic for the right opportunity for her and Nova.
“I don't want to allow myself to be forced back into a position that's not conducive to motherhood, basically. I want to make sure I'm there for my child. I have to be,” said Hart.
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