Colorado mothers aren’t returning to the workforce as quickly as everyone else

Magali Botello had spent two years preparing for her daughter’s April 8 quinceañera, the celebration of her 15th birthday. Now, all plans are on hold. Her family can’t afford it.

Botello, 38, lost her job of 13 years cleaning houses in Boulder the second week of March 2020, and hasn’t been able to find another job. Even as COVID restrictions lift and kids go back to school, Botello’s customers aren’t ready to have her back in their homes.

Her husband’s work hours at a car repair shop were also reduced. They had to use nearly all the money they saved for their two kids’ college expenses to pay rent and bills. They aren’t eligible for unemployment, but they were able to receive one-time assistance through an organization she’s a part of.

“It’s really stressful. … It’s really bad,” Botello said of their financial situation. “I think it’s not only me. I heard from many people (that) the situation is really hard right now.”

Women in the U.S. and Colorado were unemployed during the pandemic at high rates — women of color and mothers in even higher numbers. The rate of women participating in the labor force in Colorado is 1.2 percentage points lower in February than it was in January 2020, compared with a 0.8 percentage point increase for men, according to a report by the nonpartisan Common Sense Institute.

Local economists say long-term problems for women in the workforce were exacerbated by the pandemic — accessibility to affordable child care; needing to stay home with children whose schools were closed; and concentration of women in service and hospitality industries that won’t recover as quickly.

Women’s advocacy groups worry if the right measures aren’t taken, decades of progress could be erased for women, which would affect the entire state.

“I do expect as schools reopen and child care centers reopen, we’ll see a rebound of women’s employment,” said Chloe East, assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver. “But I also think from what we know from the economic research, even short periods of time out of the labor force can have long-term consequences for women’s work and wages.”

The Denver Post heard from women across the state who shared their stories of layoffs, furloughs or being forced to quit their jobs because of challenges with child care or caregiving. Others said they left jobs because they felt unsafe during the pandemic, were immunocompromised or felt like they were pushed out for advocating for safer workplaces.

Their experiences spanned industries: schools, hospitals, service, entertainment and tech sectors. Many agreed that in addition to their personal financial struggles, losing women in the workforce in Colorado leads to a significant loss in perspective.

“I think it keeps us stuck in the same old ways,” said Jessica Kelleher, a single mother of 15-month-old twins, who was laid off from her job at the end of last year. “One thing that I’ve learned as a mother is just the insane amount of focus and creativity and efficiency that mothers, single mothers, mothers in the workforce have.”

If workplaces lose that, she added, they won’t grow, evolve or innovate, and the environment becomes stale and uncompetitive.

Colorado’s labor market stats

Colorado is lagging behind other states in its unemployment rate recovery at 6.6% vs. 6.2% nationally. Prior to the pandemic, Colorado’s rate was below the national average.

But to understand the full picture of how many Colorado women have been affected, analysts need to look beyond the unemployment rate, CU Denver Economics professor Laura Argys said. The rate of unemployment may have started to drop, but that’s because some people who were previously unemployed have dropped out of the workforce entirely.

“One of the differences between men and women in a recession is what occupations they’re in or what industries they’re in and how the recession is affecting those things,” Argys said. “Many recessions hit male employment pretty hard.”

Shutdowns in the retail, hospitality and service industries, in which women and people of color tend to work, created much of that burden. The restaurant and hospitality sectors got rid of 41,000 jobs in November and December alone.

Although state analysts forecast that the total number of jobs in Colorado will reach pre-pandemic levels by 2022, February’s growth was slower. If that rate continues, it’ll take until 2024 to reach that mark, according to the Common Sense Institute.

Had January 2020 growth continued, Colorado would have 27,000 more women in the labor force, Common Sense Institute president and CEO Kristin Strohm said.

“Our jobs have not recovered at the same rate as other states across the nation and we’re seeing a disproportionate impact, especially on moms here,” Strohm said. In February, Colorado ranked 28th among states in terms of current job levels year-over-year, according to a report released Thursday by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Mothers left the workforce at a higher rate than fathers, the Common Sense Institute report said, and women without college degrees were four times more likely to become unemployed than those with associate degrees or higher.

The pandemic also has affected women’s earning potential and set back long-term career trajectories, said Nicole Riehl, president and CEO of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC).

She believes the solution needs to be a public and private effort — pouring in money and resources from the state and federal government, as well as normalizing caregiving as part of corporate culture and providing families with financial incentives.

Some nonprofits like 9 to 5 Colorado, which helped Botello’s family, and the Colorado Women’s Foundation established relief funds to assist with women’s bills, but say policymakers need to find more permanent solutions. Others like the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce are working with businesses in the state to provide more mentorship and programming to help keep women in the workforce.

The solutions, however, shouldn’t create undue burdens on businesses, chamber President and CEO Kristen Blessman said.

“The economy is not going to come back until we get women back in the workforce,” she added.

There is some hope: Recent estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment show women ages 16 and older are back to participating in the labor force like they were in February 2019, at 62%. That had dropped to 56% last April.

CDLE senior economist Ryan Gedney cautioned there are still some women who aren’t in the workforce but might want to be, or some who are part-time instead of full-time. Plus, the numbers fluctuate from month to month. But overall, he expects more women will be able to return after vaccinations are widespread and there’s a more normal school year.

Working mothers

Child care was an issue for the 44-year-old Kelleher, who delivered her twins in December 2019 and returned in March 2020 from maternity leave to her job as a manager at a Denver-area oil and gas company. In November, her employer of six years laid her off.

“It was my worst nightmare, horrific,” Kelleher said. “It was shocking and terrifying. Just immediately scared that I was going to be trying to take care of two children on the street.”

She had to lay off her kids’ nanny, start looking for another job and scramble to figure out what to do about health insurance and unemployment benefits. She also quickly realized that she couldn’t take care of her kids alone at home on top of job searching.

So, Kelleher took a financial risk and put them in day care, with the hope that a job would come along quickly. Four months later, Kelleher was employed again, this time in the renewable energy industry.

Colorado ranks eighth highest in the U.S. for child care costs, with an annual average cost of $15,325 for full-time infant care. Already, there was a significant shortage of child care options before the pandemic, and as COVID spread and some businesses closed, the problem became even worse, Riehl said.

The organization is pushing for measures that would, among other things, make child care more affordable; create more incentives for land developers so child care centers can purchase the space they need at lower rates; help the industry pay livable wages; and change regulations for home-based child care.

Colorado’s leaders have pledged at least $5 million to $10 million for child care in a state stimulus package and expect more for that from the latest federal stimulus package (which hasn’t yet been allocated). Riehl also said policy leaders are starting to consider child care as a key aspect of the infrastructure.”

But the issue goes beyond whether child care is available. Some mothers have had to leave the workforce because of caregiving responsibilities, which advocates say also needs to be taken into consideration.

Annelicia Tenorio, 27, was furloughed in April from her job as a skincare consultant and makeup artist at The Body Shop at Denver International Airport, but returned to work in September. Less than a month later, she found out she was pregnant with her second child.

She had a rough start to the pregnancy and her doctor told her she needed to find a less hands-on position or take a break to protect herself and her baby during the pandemic. 

Tenorio tried to work through it with human resources, but ultimately, they couldn’t find a solution.

“We weren’t prepared for it,” Tenorio said of the job loss, which forced her and her husband to make some cuts and tighten their budget. “We weren’t prepared for one income.”

One of the most stressful aspects for Tenorio, however, is the uncertainty. After the baby is born, she wants to be able to work, but she’d have to figure out child care. Will it be safe? Will she be able to find a job in her career? Or will she need to take another route?

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