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Report: COVID-19 Disproportionately Impacts Women's Health, Work & Financial Security

Closeup on medical mask and hand disinfectant and stressed woman in background in temporary home office during the coronavirus epidemic in the house in sunny day.
Women are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak in Vermont, making up more than half the cases of the virus and at greater risk of falling into poverty. We're talking about a new report looking at the outsized impact COVID-19 is having on women.

A new state report finds women in Vermont have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. The COVID-19 disease itself has affected their personal health, but the economic downturn associated with the pandemic has also seen a uniquely large impact on women's financial stability and economic security. This hour, we'll take a close look at the report's findings.

Our guests are:

Broadcast live on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The report clearly shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected more women than men in Vermont, both from an economic perspective and a health care perspective. One of the major factors in why this is happening seems to be that more women are likely to be employed in the types of businesses that were hit hardest by the pandemic. Can you explain that to us?

To read the full report from the Vermont Commission on Women, head here.

Cary Brown: Before the pandemic started, we saw disproportionate representation in areas such as child care workers, other personal care workers, health care workers, nurses.

Chart showing percentages of women in various health care fields
Credit Vermont Commission on Women, courtesy
According to a report from the Vermont Commission on Women, the vast majority of health care and personal care workers in Vermont are women.

Ninety-one percent of the nurses in Vermont are women, 82% of other health care workers are women and 82% of personal care workers – which includes child care workers as well as home health workers – are women. These are jobs that were absolutely essential, and so we see a lot of women in essential positions and having to stay in them.

And then the other the other side of the coin is that we've got a lot of women in retail, food service, hospitality – the jobs that completely went away for a time and which are likely to be very slow to come back. So, for instance, 81% of all tipped wage workers in Vermont are women, which is the highest in the country.

That's an amazing statistic. Can you explain that to me? Why do you think that's true and what does it encompass?

Cary Brown: Well, so that is people who work in restaurants, wait staff. It also could be people who work in housekeeping, in hotels and other jobs that rely on tips. And so they have a lower minimum wage and they're more likely to be on the front lines of those whose jobs were laid off when the pandemic began.

More from VPR: Over A Month Into The Pandemic, Vermonters Still Struggle To Get Unemployment Benefits

These are jobs that are generally not very well-paid to begin with. So before this even started, of course, we saw a wage gap between men and women in Vermont of 16%. And that had a lot to do with the kinds of jobs that women were doing. They tend to be lower paid, are more likely to be part-time, and so they were much more impacted when those jobs closed down. And then we're also concerned about the long range impact because there's not going to be a quick comeback for restaurants or other hospitality jobs. And so women are going to continue to be feeling the brunt of that.

Chart showing gender dynamics of tipped positions
Credit Vermont Commission on Women, courtesy
According to a recent report from the Vermont Commission on Women, Vermont leads the nation when it comes to the proportion of tipped workers who are women.

You mentioned that Vermont has the highest rate in the nation of women who make up the so-called tipped wage job force. Why do you think that's true?

Well, that is a really good question. I don't know that I have any theories about why that is true. It probably has a lot to do with the availability of jobs in general in our economy, and the they're the kind of jobs that are that are open.

We recently released another report based on our listening project, where we did conversations around the state and an online survey of about 2,200 people. And one of the things we heard over and over again was the difficulty of finding the jobs: jobs with benefits, jobs that pay well, jobs that offer flexibility. I think we have an underlying issue here for employment of women in Vermont.

Women make up 82% of the personal care industry in Vermont. This also includes child care professionals. So the closing of child care centers, when we went to the Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order from Gov. Scott and all but those centers for essential workers were closed down, this seemed to be a double whammy. First of all, a lot of women lost their jobs.

Emilie Kornheiser: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of women lost their jobs. Those jobs were primarily held by women. Those women lost their jobs, had to file for unemployment. We know how incredibly difficult that process was for a number of people and how hard it was to access benefits.

More from VPR: When A Conference Call Becomes A Lifeline

Simultaneously, we know that when there is a problem with child care or caregiving in general in a household, that women are much more likely to step back from the workforce to provide that caregiving. We saw more women beginning to work from home to care for their kids simultaneously. And that can both mean a loss in jobs, or mean just less productivity on the job, which sets people up worse for future advancement.

"We know that when there is a problem with child care or caregiving in general in a household, that women are much more likely to step back from the workforce to provide that caregiving." - Emilie Kornheiser, Rep. from Brattleboro

One example that I've really appreciated – because we talk about this across the economic spectrum, the impacts that we see – we can talk about food service workers and the low wages there, but we can also talk about academia. And so in academia, we're seeing a loss of jobs for adjuncts, which are much more likely to be women. We're also seeing that women who are working from home in academia are less likely to publish right now. And so I think that's a really useful example for understanding, as professional folks are working from home and caregiving simultaneously, the different impacts that have on people in the household and that women are more likely to give up work hours to provide that care.

Not only did a lot of women lose their jobs because the childcare centers closed, but as you were mentioning, many of the women who were able to keep their jobs didn't have childcare services. They desperately needed those child care services in order to work from home. So it really created a really desperate situation where it was almost impossible for women to work at home and provide child care services to their family at the same time.

Emilie Kornheiser: Absolutely, and it points to a lot of structural issues in our communities and in our economy. You asked Cary the question, “Why do we think most of the service jobs in Vermont are held by women?” I think the point that those jobs tend to be have much more flexible hours is a really important point.

Chart showing gender of unemployment claim filees in  Vermont in May 2020.
Credit Vermont Commission on Women, courtesy
This chart reflects unemployment claims for May 2020. In April 2020, the height of unemployment claims in the state, over 46% of claims were attributed to women, and 40% to men. For 14% of applications during the same period, gender data was not available. According to the VCW, men were twice as likely to file unemployment claims as women in Vermont in April 2019.

Women are more likely to accept jobs that have that flexibility because other jobs do not provide that flexibility. So when we're looking towards solutions on the other side of this pandemic, as we're restructuring an economy that we shut down, we can look to that flexibility of jobs is a really important step in making sure women have economic parity.

What resources are available to women who are small business owners, who saw their businesses shut down during the pandemic?

Cary Brown: On Friday night, the Vermont legislature passed a bill that will provide economic recovery grants to businesses in Vermont. And there is a set-aside in that bill of $5.5 million for small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

I think we also need to take a little time now to think about the structural inequities that have made this so much worse for women than it necessarily had to be. Everyone's having trouble with work and everyone's having trouble with income, but the reason why it's affecting women so much more is because of those inequities that were in place already.

More from VPR: Race, COVID-19 And Health Disparities In Vermont

The kinds of things that we've talked about, including child care, which is a huge one. The vast majority of child care workers are women. And so we're impacting their employment. And these are jobs that are extremely low paying to begin with. So if you're in a very low paying job, you're less likely to have savings, you're less likely to have benefits that can help you through. And so the impact of these businesses shutting down is just felt that much harder.

"I work with Vermont Works for Women. We've seen a large increase in women calling in need of our services, and 90-95% of those women are all calling with child care issues. It's across the board, across the state, the number one issue we hear in getting back to work." - Ronnie, caller from Essex

We had a caller ask about a book called The Price of Motherhood – and the phenomenon that women suffer professionally and in other ways when they become parents. Can you talk about that?

Cary Brown: I am very familiar with the motherhood penalty. It’s very real. There is a quantifiable cost to having children, and it's really high for women. And that has to do with the fact that women are disproportionately taking care of family and home and doing the labor at home.

Chart showing median wage gap between men and women
Credit Vermont Commission on Women, courtesy
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cary Brown reports that the wage gap between men and women sat at about 16% in Vermont.

And we're seeing that right now nationally. Women are doing about 72 hours of at-home labor every week, and men are doing about 52 hours of at-home labor every week.

  • Nationally, women are doing about 72 hours of at-home labor per week
  • Nationally, men are doing about 52 hours of at-home labor per week

Data courtesy the Vermont Commission on Women's COVID-19 Dashboard

So that's, you know, 20 hours a week more that women are spending on that, while they're juggling their own jobs. And in normal times, the women are four times more likely to take time off when their children are sick. They're much more likely to cite family responsibility as the reasons why they work part time. And so their earnings are lower. It really has a long term lifelong impact.

When we look at senior citizens in Vermont, we see that men are making about $11,000 more in social security benefits than women do in Vermont. That’s almost twice as much.

More from VPR: Vermont Seniors On Lockdown: 'It's Like We Live In A Bubble'

That's because of a lifetime of working the lower-paid job, working less, not having the job with the pension and the retirement benefits. And then, you know, it's become something that is very, very hard to catch up on.

Rep. Kornheiser, you talked about some structural change and Cary mentioned some money in the covered bill that the Legislature just passed. You were part of a coalition of people talking about a fair jobs and recovery plan. What did that entail and how much of that actually made it into law?

Emilie Kornheiser: We know from many conversations that I think we have had across the state that COVID really widened the existing cracks in our communities and helped a lot more of us see where those cracks were, whether that is around caregiving or economic inequality. And so as we rebuild Vermont's economy, the question is, do we want to rebuild it close to the way it was before? Or do we want to acknowledge that a lot of what was happening wasn't working for everyone and we need to do things differently?

Chart showing rates at which women-led households experience poverty in Vermont
Credit Vermont Commission on Women, courtesy
According to a new report from the Vermont Commission on Women, women in Vermont are more susceptible to being in or falling into poverty. Black women in Vermont are living in poverty at a rate that is more than twice that of White women.

This coalition proposal was saying, what if we took this opportunity to incentivize businesses that were going to provide flexible schedules and really work to prevent sexual harassment and have equitable pay across gender lines? What would that look like to have real worker protections for every business in Vermont going forward? And how would that really create a long term change in our communities?

More from VPR: 'Kind Of Freaky': Health Care Workers Reflect On Starting Careers Amid Pandemic

We do have in the existing bill is this set aside, as Cary described, that really focuses on what the specific needs of women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses. We have hazard pay, which made it into the final bill, which acknowledges that nurses and health care workers and personal care workers who are disproportionately women were on the frontlines of this pandemic. And there is a little bit in the larger economic development policies and structures that asks businesses to certify that they're in compliance with state laws and equal pay is one of those state laws.

The other piece of the package is how state benefits are delivered.

Most state benefits, whether that is food stamps, EBT or unemployment insurance or really anything – it’s something that people need to apply for. They need to opt into it. And there's a big barrier to participation, both because of pride and New England cultural morays. And it's really difficult, annoying paperwork, to be quite honest. And there's a lot of hoops to jump through. People don't really have time to jump through hoops when they're trying to care for four children who are all home from school that they're supposed to be home schooling.

More from VPR: 'My Family Needs These Meals': How One Northeast Kingdom Family Is Making It Through

We've had a few programs during the pandemic that are really much more of an opt-out program. And that's made a big difference for families. We've had schools delivering daily lunches every day, we've had food stamp EBT cards that go to every household in a community that has children. So people don't have to say, “I'm needy. I want food stamps.” Everyone gets some and can use them as they wish. And so when we move towards solutions like that, it makes a real difference for families’ ability to make it work, and for women's ability to make it work as members of those families.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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