TRENTON – When the economy was rocked by the pandemic, women suffered a disproportionate amount of the brunt – many in industries where jobs disappeared when businesses closed, some now driven entirely from the workforce, others juggling their work with kids remote learning.
At a state Department of the Treasury symposium Friday analyzing the impact and how to avoid another ‘she-cession,’ one common cure suggested was better child care.
Echoing the debate in Washington, Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice for the National Women’s Law Center said child care is infrastructure that’s critically needed so families can go to work.
“We sort of had a jerry-rigged, barely working system before the pandemic exploded it,” Martin said.
Better support for the child-care industry would help both families needing the service so it’s easier for both parents to work and women entrepreneurs and employees in the women-dominated industry.
The state is spending some of its CARES Act money on child care, providing financial help for families up to $100,000 of income. Elyse Shaw, a study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said a national child care system is needed.
“No family should have to pay more than 7% of their household income for child care,” Shaw said. “Right now it’s an exorbitant cost, and it’s something that’s just so cost-prohibitive for most families.”
Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, D-Essex, said a longer school day could help – not necessarily sitting at a desk learning, but doing other activities and helping families defray costs of after-school care.
“It could be that after that average school day ends, you have that extended portion but you get to do things where we used to have afterschool programming, but throughout the years it’s all been kind of cut back,” Pintor Marin said.
Aides to Gov. Phil Murphy have been discussing how to approach an extended school-day, said Murphy’s chief policy advisor, Zakiya Smith Ellis. She noted schools are in the rare position of having a lot of federal funding right now.
“Because we know that a lot of students, a lot of kids, maybe fell behind during this time, there’s a real need for that,” Smith Ellis said. “And that also helps with child care.”
Pintor Marin said another possibility could be a longer school year, as being out for about 11 weeks in summer creates a gap that is tough for some families to afford.
“And I know some of the kids will hate me for saying this, right? It’s also a loss of opportunity that we have where kids could still be engaged,” Pintor Marin said.
Many of the industries that suffered most in the pandemic-driven recession disproportionately employ women – education, hospitality businesses such as hotels and casinos, services such as nonprofits and salons, said Lesley Hirsch, assistant commissioner of research and information for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“Even though women make up 47% of the labor force, at women’s peak, the percentage of initial (unemployment insurance) claims was as high as 55%. So, that’s an 8 percentage point difference,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch said women had a higher unemployment rate than men early in the pandemic, but that had reversed by the end of 2020 – at least nationally. She said New Jersey data is more limited but suggests it might still be higher among women here.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at [email protected].