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Coronavirus crushed Colorado’s economy. But working women paid the highest price.

About 20,000 fewer women were working in Colorado by the end of 2020 than when the pandemic began. Moms were most likely to leave or lose their jobs.

Laura Charlton lost nearly all of her clients during the coronavirus pandemic shut-down. But she's now back open and taking appointments at H and S Massage in downtown Elizabeth. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Louise Carr, 50 and divorced, lost her job as a baker and waitress early on in the pandemic when the Castle Rock cafe where she worked closed its doors. Now she’s vying with 20-somethings for work in a juice bar, and she’s losing. 

Laura Charlton, 51, watched her self-made massage therapy business in Elizabeth dwindle to nothing as the coronavirus spread, leaving her no choice but to file for unemployment to make her rent. She, too, works at a trade dominated by women and hard hit by the shutdown. 

And Lenore Knox, 43 and mom to twin third-graders, was juggling the boys’ online school with her job at a Boulder soccer club. When her pay was cut nearly in half, she quit. Now, she says, “I feel my self-worth plunging and am terrified that this work gap is going to punish me for years to come.”

This is part of a weeklong series marking a year since COVID-19 was first detected in Colorado. The state’s first confirmed cases were announced March 5, 2020.

>> READ THE REST OF THE SERIES

The pandemic that arrived in Colorado a year ago this week has crushed the state’s economy and pushed unemployment to levels not seen since the Great Recession of 2008. More women than men, though, have been left jobless. Women in the state labor force dropped to its lowest rate in 20 years in 2020, landing at 56.3% in April. 

The shrinking female workforce is the result of business closures in the women-dominated fields of child care, restaurants and retail. And some women, either by choice or because they had no other option, quit working when their children stopped going to school or child care. 

Working moms left the workforce during the pandemic faster than other women, working dads and other men. And just more than 20,000 haven’t returned to work, with the number of moms back at work in December registering 6% lower than in February 2020, according to Common Sense Institute, a think tank that promotes the Colorado economy.

There are certainly many people who feel this pandemic has set back decades of progress for women.

Nicole Riehl, Executives Partnering to Invest in Children

“There are certainly many people who feel this pandemic has set back decades of progress for women,” said Nicole Riehl, president of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, which advocates for expanding child care options.”This pandemic will end. And we have a huge amount of consumer demand that has been pent up. Companies are anxious to see our economy grow again. When the time comes, we want to make sure that women can reenter the workforce.” 

“So far down”

Carr was a stay-at-home mom for a decade, then got divorced at age 39 and began looking for work. “I had nothing. I was very unsure of myself,” she said. 

After various jobs, she ended up finding her calling as a pastry chef, truly fulfilled when standing in front of “a mess of ingredients to create something in an hour.” A year ago, the mom of four grown children was cruising along, paying her rent on time, had good credit and a nice car. “I wasn’t wealthy by any means, but if I wanted to get my nails done, I could, and if my kids needed a hundred bucks for college books, I could do that,” she said. 

Then the coronavirus pandemic upended her life. 

She lost her job at the cafe. She applied for other jobs and hasn’t been hired. Her unemployment checks, after years of working for small businesses that she says didn’t always calculate her taxes properly, are just $72 per week. She is $8,000 behind on rent. And her car was repossessed. 

Carr has to walk to her job interviews, arriving sweaty, and never feeling like her best self. 

Sometimes you just get so far down. It’s hard to be ready for an interview when you can’t fix your hair and wear decent clothes. 

Louise Carr, Castle Rock mom

“Sometimes you just get so far down,” she said. “It’s hard to be ready for an interview when you can’t fix your hair and wear decent clothes.” 

Like a punch when she was already feeling low, Carr’s mother, who lived in England, died during the pandemic. She couldn’t get there to see her before she died, then had to scrape together $1,500 for a bare-minimum cremation and shipping of her mother’s ashes across the ocean. Carr sold her plasma every week, took her kids’ Xbox to a pawn shop, and peddled freshly baked cookies and cakes via Facebook to come up with the cash. 

Her mother’s ashes arrived in a cheap, gray container. 

Carr has applied at Target and Walmart, and the juice bar down the street from her home in Castle Rock. The juice bar interview went downhill, she said, when she started talking about the nutritional benefits of elderberry. Carr knew then that she didn’t fit in with the vibe — she was older than the manager, for starters. 

She scours the job ads every day, growing frustrated with the offerings in sectors where she’s qualified, such as receptionist positions or other office work, or call centers. Many of the higher-paying positions, she said, are geared toward men, including in maintenance and physical labor. 

Carr said she would work as a grocery shopper or food delivery driver. If they hadn’t taken back her car. 

Women made up 100% of December job losses

Since the 1950s, women have dramatically expanded America’s workforce. Back then, 1 in 3 women had a job. By the late 1990s, nearly 3 out of every 5 women or about 60% were part of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“If you could just think about women’s rights over that time and society being more open to women being in the workplace, that barrier was broken in that 50 years,” said Brian Lewandowski, executive director of the Business Research Division at the Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado Boulder. “The female labor force participation rate peaked in the year 2000. It’s come down a little bit, and that’s because the first band of women who entered the workforce, the baby boomers, have retired.”

But during the pandemic, the percentage of women who are in the workforce hit its lowest point in two decades. 

Last month, 57% of women in the United States were working, down from the high of 61.1% in 2009. Men’s rates have dropped, too, to a low of 68.6% last April, down from the high of 77.2% in 2001. But that’s edged up to 69.7% in January.

By the end of 2020, there were about 9.5 million fewer people in the U.S. employed than prior to the pandemic in January, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The labor force shrank as jobs disappeared. The January labor participation rate dropped only 1.9 percentage points from February 2020. About the same percentage of men and women dropped out of the labor force. 

But the Common Sense Institute looked deeper into the declines and who stopped working. Of the 9.5 million lost jobs, 54.4% were women. And during December, when the nation lost 140,000 jobs, more men returned to work than women. That translated into women accounting for 100% of the month’s job losses — and that makes sense when you look at hard-hit industries.

“Nationally some of the disproportionate impacts are even more striking on an industry basis because while women make up 48% of jobs in the retail industry, they accounted for 89% of the total jobs lost in that sector in 2020,” said Kristin Strohm, CSI’s president and CEO. 

More striking, however, was the impact on working women with children in Colorado, according to the Current Population Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census. The rate of working moms leaving the state’s workforce fell faster than working dads, other women and all other men. 

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“I don’t see how our economy does fully recover without women getting back to work,” Strohm said. “I think the pandemic and this recession really do threaten generations of progress that Colorado’s working women have had. … Working moms are still being left out of that recovery plan.”

Strohm said it’s critical to solve the child care issue, and that’s one of the policies her team is pushing in this legislative session. In its February report “The She-Cession in Colorado: Impact of Covid-19 on Women in the Workforce in 2020,” CSI said employment among working moms was already 6.2% lower than everyone else before the pandemic, but that gap doubled to 12.3% as many moms who lost their jobs didn’t return to work during the pandemic. 

“I’ve been harping at policymakers, what’s the plan to solve the child care issue? What’s the plan to get women back to work?” she said. “Because if we don’t do that as a state … we’re never going to fully recover.” 

Gov. Jared Polis cited the reopening of schools to in-person learning as key to getting mothers back to work. Women’s participation in the labor force was at 42.3% in 1970, hovered around 62% in 2000, and dropped to 56.3% in 2020.

“We have the lowest participation of women in the workforce in 1985, he said. “These are consequences of our schools not being back.”

“We were the ones who stepped back”

Knox’s twin boys, who are 8, are back in school, but they attend for just three hours per day. It’s hardly enough time to make it to a job interview. And if Knox did find a job, the logistics of finding child care to surround the three-hour school window are mind-boggling.

“I’m feeling stuck, very uninspired,” she said. “I feel like I need somebody to take me and say, ‘You’d be really good at that.’ Some guidance would inspire me to get the spark again.” 

Lenore Knox of Boulder helps her 8-year-old twin boys, Henry and Tucker, as they work on school assignments. The boys are back to in-person school, but only for three hours per day. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Knox was running the adult sports program for a nonprofit soccer club when the pandemic hit. Her pay was cut by 45%, rendering the job no longer worthwhile at the same time her kids were slogging through online school from home. 

Many of her mom friends, a group of Boulder women who have gotten together for outdoor wine or coffee during the pandemic, are similarly uninspired. “We’re almost mourning all these cool things we had planned, … having these great possibilities taken away from us,” she said. Instead of working toward advancing their careers, they’re “treading water,” or worse, going backward.

“I’m going to have to move five steps back and take a huge pay cut or work very crappy hours,” Knox said about returning to the workforce. “I’m going to be a few years behind.”

Knox’s husband is a middle school teacher, and was earning more money than she was and working more hours. It made more sense for her to supervise the boys’ online schoolwork while her husband navigated online teaching. 

“I feel like as much as we are moving forward with gender roles, it’s always going to fall on the women,” she said. “We are the moms. We are the caretakers. We pick up the pieces. We can handle that emotional toll better than our male counterparts.”

It’s what they talk about when Knox and her friends get together now. “We didn’t make as much money as our husbands,” she said, “so we were the ones who stepped back.” 

Flex hours, job shares, nighttime daycare

A major factor in getting women to return to the workforce is child care, and even before the pandemic, Colorado was losing child care slots rather than gaining them. 

“It’s been an issue for a long time but the pandemic has just put it forefront for everyone,” said Riehl, with EPIC. “All of a sudden having schools closed, having child care centers closed, brought many jobs to a screeching halt and really made everyone sit up and pay attention.” 

Riehl’s organization is pushing for government and private-sector policies that would boost child care options and encourage moms to return to work. She proposes tax incentives for developers who will put daycare centers in their office and apartment buildings, and tax breaks for people who want to lease space to open a child care center. 

Lenore Knox sits in her office at home in Boulder, looking for jobs online. Her pay was cut by 45% during the pandemic and she decided to stay home to supervise her boys’ online school days. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)

At the same time, businesses should allow for flexible work schedules, work-from-home options and job shares, as well as create a top-down culture where family obligations aren’t viewed as a hindrance to job performance, she said.

Working-class families, and especially women of color, need child care that doesn’t operate on bankers’ hours. “There are lots of families who don’t work Monday through Friday, 9 to 6,” Riehl said, including restaurant workers and staff in tourism and the health sector. 

Finding child care in Colorado, where there are “child care deserts” in both rural and urban areas, has been a struggle for years. Options shrunk during the pandemic, and the state is now offering grants to encourage daycare centers to open or continue operating. A June survey of 1,207 licensed child care centers in Colorado conducted by an early childhood nonprofit found that 10% have closed since the pandemic began. On average, enrollment dropped 30% statewide.

“Hopefully this is something that employers are thinking about more, and society is thinking about more as a whole,” Riehl said. 

The nonprofit 9to5 Colorado, which advocates for working women, said women of color have been disproportionately impacted by our “broken economic system.” The organization started a “rapid response care fund” in April after finding that many community members were “being forced to choose between rent, groceries, child care and utilities,” said state director Andrea Chiriboga-Flor. The fund is now providing up to $500 per week to 20 families and will continue through next month. 

The issues women face in the workforce — lack of paid leave, affordable child care, a living wage — have only come into sharper focus throughout the pandemic.

Andrea Chiriboga-Flor, 9to5 state director

“The issues women face in the workforce — lack of paid leave, affordable child care, a living wage — have only come into sharper focus throughout the pandemic,” Chiriboga-Flor said.

“More and more of our members are relying on multiple jobs through the gig economy, which we know can be a very precarious industry with little to no benefits.”

“Moms are the ones who are made to sacrifice”

Charlton, a massage therapist for almost 30 years, opened her own practice in Elizabeth seven years ago, building up so many clients that she was giving 30 massages each week. Then the pandemic destroyed it. 

First, she was required last spring to shut down as Gov. Jared Polis ordered spas, hair salons and other personal-care industries to temporarily close their doors. And even when she was allowed to reopen, most clients were too concerned about the virus to book an appointment. 

Charlton, who is single with a high schooler and a college student living at home, feels like she’s starting over again. Months after reopening her clinic, she’s up to eight to 10 clients per week.

Laura Charlton, massage therapist and owner of H and S Massage, is slowly building up her clientele after her business was crushed by COVID-19. (John Leyba, Special to the Colorado Sun)

She’s pieced together paying for life with unemployment benefits and a federal loan through the coronavirus-inspired Paycheck Protection Program, but the benefits have been “pretty spare” and unpredictable, she said. Her sister in Alabama sends her money for groceries. 

“I really feel like this pandemic has been an eye-opener into how many women work as service-providers,” she said. And not just in salons and spas, but also as teachers, caregivers for the elderly, nurses and child care workers — many of the professions hardest hit by the economic shutdowns. 

Charlton said that as policymakers work to jumpstart the economy, she hopes they focus equally on women-dominated industries as much as on building roads and bridges and broadband networks.

I am fascinated by the profound and disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on women.

Laura Charlton, massage therapist

“I am fascinated by the profound and disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on women,” she said. “I haven’t heard of any large-scale employment coming to counter the effects the pandemic has had on women.”

Through the financial stress of the past year, she’s been there to support and motivate her 18-year-old son, who attends both Elizabeth High School and Pickens Technical College, and her 20-year-old daughter, a nursing student at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. 

“It really is the way our society is designed,” he said. “Moms are the ones who are made to sacrifice.”


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