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Why COVID Hit Women Harder in Stanislaus County, Calif.

Nearly 30% of all Latinas and 36% of undocumented Latinas lost their jobs during the first months of the pandemic. They’ve gained since then, but there’s still a long way to go until Latinas in California have recovered.

(TNS) - Apr. 12—Gaby Martinez had been working for the Stanislaus Public Library for years, and she loved her job in the youth services division. She got to connect with students and parents, promote early literacy and even work with the maximum security wing of a juvenile detention center to give books to incarcerated young adults.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic brought life to a grinding halt last spring, the library shut down. Martinez, a single mother of three who also lives with her elderly mother, suddenly lost her part-time job and her family's only source of income.
She filed for unemployment, but due to departmental backlogs and difficulties, could only access benefits in June, months after she lost her job. Martinez, who lives in Turlock, worried about paying bills and having to dip into her savings.
"There were times where I had late fees and I had to question, 'What am I going to pay? What am I not going to pay?'" Martinez said.
After a handful of small jobs over the summer — a weekend of contact tracing, a month of organizing lunchtime book pickup events with her former supervisor — Martinez finally got a more permanent position with the county's emergency services hotline in September.
She now works about 35 hours per week and is able to pay her bills, but Martinez said she's still feeling the toll of the past year.
"I trust God, pretty much for everything," Martinez said. "It hasn't always been easy. There have been times where I cry in the shower because I don't want my family to hear me, because it's a lot of pressure."
A statewide struggle
Martinez's story is reflected in countless other women across California. As COVID-19 ravaged the nation, economists and researchers began noticing that the ensuing shutdowns and coinciding job losses were affecting women at disproportionately higher rates than men.
The pandemic has caused more California women than men to lose their jobs, a discrepancy that persists as California's economy improves, the latest state data show.
About 11% of California women 16 and older were unemployed and seeking work, on average, each month during 2020, compared to 9.5% of men. In 2019, by comparison, the unemployment rate was the same — 4.1% — for California women as it was for men.
Sarah Bohn, the vice president of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, said she and her colleagues began noticing the pandemic gender gap early on.
"It jumped out at you that, especially during the first few months of the pandemic, this gap emerged in the unemployment situation for women, relative to men," Bohn said.
In past recessions, like the 2008 financial crisis, men had typically lost their jobs at higher rates than women, Bohn said, but the pandemic-induced economic crisis is different. She and her colleagues identified a number of factors that put women, and especially women of color, at a higher risk of unemployment across the state.
Women are more likely to work in sectors impacted by pandemic closures, like the service, leisure and hospitality industries. Those sectors were decimated at the pandemic's outset.
Women also make up a large proportion of the essential workforce, and staying in those jobs now carries a higher level of risk. Finally, Bohn said, women are more likely to take on caregiver roles for children and elderly relatives.
"Even in families where there are two or more working adults, if there are children, women still spend more of their time caring for them," she said.
While Bohn said the gap in unemployment narrowed at the end of 2020, with seasonal work up over the holiday season, women's unemployment rates are rising again.
Women of color hit especially hard
In California, Bohn added, women of color are even more affected by unemployment.
"Latina women are affected more than women of Asian descent or white women in California because they are much more likely to work in the sectors that have been hardest hit, and Black women are really over-represented in frontline sectors," she said.
Helen Torres, the CEO of Los Angeles-based Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), and her team have been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on Latinas across the state.
Nearly 30% of all Latinas and 36% of undocumented Latinas lost their jobs during the first months of the pandemic, Torres said. Since then, they've observed small gains, but there's still a long way to go until Latinas in California have recovered.
Torres said state and federal lawmakers need to take into account the unique needs of Latinas when they administer relief.
Many Latinas are entrepreneurs and sole proprietors, and Torres said she was happy to see the Biden administration's latest relief efforts place more of an emphasis on small and micro business owners.
"There needs to be an equitable lens of how those (funds) are being distributed in local communities," she said. "That's why it's going to be really important for leaders across the state, and Latino leaders, to really step up and call for that before the (next round of) funds (is) distributed."
For undocumented Latinas, the road to recovery will be even longer, Torres said. Though undocumented workers were eligible for state benefits under the Golden State Stimulus, those funds ran out quickly, and undocumented workers don't qualify for federal aid.
Torres said for these women especially, it's crucial that community organizations — like health clinics and childcare centers — and schools receive support so they can benefit through indirect assistance.
The importance of mental health during COVID
Lilia Lomeli-Gil has been working as a community aide at the Grayson Community Center for 15 years. Last fall, she began interviewing community members about their experiences during the pandemic, and found universal stories of job loss, financial insecurity and worry about at-risk family members.
The families she talked to, many of whom are farm workers, said they would most benefit from childcare support, financial support and food support.
But Lomeli-Gil also noticed the mental toll the pandemic has taken on families, especially the women who often take on extra burdens to make sure their families are cared for. She said that many women needed the reassurance that they weren't the only ones struggling over the past year.
"It's not that you're crazy, it's just that life throws things (at you) that you do not have any control over," she said. "(You have to be) learning the coping skills and learning how to manage stress; it's not just emotional, it also affects the body physically."
The U.S. Census Bureau found that 41% of California women felt "nervous, anxious or on edge" during most of the seven days before they were surveyed, compared to 28% of men.
Martinez, the former library worker, said she's felt the mental toll and isolation.
"The other thing I've learned, too, is how easy it is to become depressed, because human contact is so important," she said. "We were told, 'Don't touch anybody; don't hug anybody.' For me, that was hard. ... Even now I kind of catch myself."
Underlying issues are now at the forefront
The pandemic has served to highlight ongoing issues facing women across the state that in normal circumstances would stay hidden, said Jenya Cassidy, the director of the California Work & Family Coalition.
Cassidy said that the lack of a robust safety net, coupled with a high level of poverty and a high cost of living, leaves people across California "on the edge" of financial crisis, especially as debts multiply and they spend more time outside of the workforce.
She said more protections — like a guarantee that workers can return to their jobs once it's safe, regular financial support and other measures — would remove a lot of COVID-related anxieties and ease burdens for families across the state.
"I hope long-term that we really learn how important and vital a safety net is, not just for the economic well-being, but literally for public health," she said, "and also how much women and people of color in this state are really bearing the brunt of it."
Cassidy said that when there have been gaps in federal support, the state legislature has often picked up the slack, like with the extension of paid sick days at the end of 2020.
State Sen. Anna Caballero, D- Salinas, said one of the greatest burdens facing women during the pandemic is a lack of access to childcare, especially since women tend to be in lower paying jobs and women of color tend to be more represented in service industries.
"They paid a huge price," she said, "because there was no income coming in from their (jobs) and then they were primarily responsible for all of the household chores, which include their kids but then also making sure that the household is running and that the tasks of cleaning and everything else are taken care of."
The infusion of state dollars into childcare facilities, as well as the child tax relief credit included in the new stimulus package seek to relieve some of that stress, she said.
'We pay about $2,000 a month so that I can keep my career'
The issue of childcare is forcing some women, like Jeannee Wainscott, a part-time physician assistant in Sacramento with two boys, to weigh whether or not they can afford to maintain their own careers.
Wainscott ended up hiring a nanny to watch her 6 and 8-year-old sons while she's at work. Her husband, also a physician assistant, works full time.
Though Wainscott and her husband's combined salaries meant they didn't qualify for any stimulus payments over the past year, hiring a nanny was outside of their budget pre-pandemic. But they're making ends meet so that she can continue to go to work, and most of the nanny's salary is coming from her own earnings.
"We pay about $2,000 a month so that I can work, I can keep my career," she said. "I know a lot of women out there don't have that luxury, and that they had to make a choice between their career and taking care of their children."
Her kids have been doing well with distance learning, Wainscott said, but she thinks that's largely to do with the supervision they get from her and the nanny.
She and her husband don't plan on employing a nanny once her kids are back at school full-time, but she worries about how often she'll have to take off work if they get sick, and if workplaces will become more lenient with their policies.
"My concern for next year is, before, you could send your child to school with a common cold," Wainscott said. "You could send your kids to school if they had a little bit of a cough. Well, that's no longer going to be the case."
Overwork and overtime
State Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, D- Stockton, said the impact of the pandemic on women who still have a job but are working increased hours or in essential sectors shouldn't be overlooked. For a lot of women, she said, COVID-19 has resulted in "overwork, overtime, exhaustion, dealing with an angry public, dealing with risks about worries about exposing themselves, and then exposing their families."
"I don't think we can underestimate the stress on women who are sometimes in lower paid jobs, but even more middle wage jobs (where) the burden on them has been increased by COVID," she said. "Those are some of our essential workers."
Many of the industries that employ mostly women were hit harder by the pandemic than industries that employ mostly men.
In the Modesto region, the jobs most often held disproportionately by women include several industries that laid off or furloughed many workers during the pandemic. For example, women in Modesto are far more likely than men to work as child care employees, office clerks or secretaries.
The jobs most often disproportionately held by men in the Modesto area tend to be in the construction, repair and transportation industries. Electricians, car mechanics, construction workers and truck drivers were likely to continue working during the pandemic.
Eggman said the pandemic has exposed the "inefficiencies" in large bureaucracies and their ability to pivot and quickly provide relief to people. She also noted how the pandemic, and the ensuing isolation, have exacerbated and brought to light issues of racism against Black, Asian American and Latino communities.
Eggman said women are hit "even harder" since they're often providing support for their family members "while trying to deal with their own issues around trauma and fear," she said.
"The issues are around misogyny and racism, and the intersectionality of that is even more compounded, especially those of lower socioeconomic status," she said.
Across California, women from all different backgrounds have been dealing with a year of living through a global pandemic that has taken over every facet of their lives, putting more responsibilities on their shoulders.
'Like having two full time jobs'
Sarah Diaz is the policy and media coordinator for the Sacramento WIC, a federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children. Diaz has been working from home alongside her husband, an engineer for the state Environmental Protection Agency, since the pandemic hit.
Together, they make sure their 7-year-old son keeps up with his distance learning.
"It's tough, and it's sort of like having two full time jobs," she said.
Diaz said she counts herself extremely lucky: both she and her husband have kept their jobs, and their son has adjusted to online classes fairly well. Until December, her husband was able to take a few hours off work each day to help their son with schoolwork, but his leave expired with the new year.
Their son recently returned to in-person instruction for two days per week, and Diaz said it "felt like a vacation" to be able to focus only on her job. She said it didn't feel like her son was interrupting her workday until she realized "either my husband or I are constantly having some sort of tag team" as they were trying to keep their son on track.
She and her husband split the childcare, but Diaz said they would both feel a lot of stress relief if they could access the type of leave that her husband took last year.
What surprised Diaz most about the pandemic is that despite a vast difference in circumstances, there's a level of universality to the experiences faced by mothers over the past year.
"No matter what their situation is, we're sort of all on the struggle bus," she said.
The Sacramento Bee's Phillip Reese contributed to this story.
This story was produced with financial support from the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project's Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.
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