Renée Epler has been a nurse for 24 years. During that time, she’s worked in hospital settings ranging from critical care to oncology, emergency departments and operating rooms.
But around Thanksgiving, after months of working to arrange her schedule, using vacation time and finding extended family to help with child care, the 51-year-old Epler decided to step away from her full-time job and shift to per diem status at Springfield Hospital.
Doing so gives her more time to help her 10-year-old daughter Autymn, who has been learning from home three days a week as Springfield schools have operated on a hybrid learning model for most of this year. Autymn, who is in 4th grade, has learning disabilities and when learning in person has one-on-one help from speech and occupational therapists, Epler said. At home, it’s up to Epler to fill in.
“We’re just really challenged trying to provide Autymn with the level of care she needs for school,” Epler said in a phone interview.
Epler is one of many working women in the Upper Valley and around the country who have lost or been forced to leave jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since last February, women in the U.S. have lost more than 5.4 million net jobs, 55 percent of net jobs lost since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Being there for her daughter has come at a cost. Due to Epler’s job change, the family has seen their income reduced by half. Epler’s husband has retained his job in middle management at Novo Nordisk in West Lebanon, and their 4½-year-old daughter has remained in day care throughout the pandemic. Epler said the family worked to pay down big bills, such as the loan on their truck, before she switched to per diem status, and they are avoiding unnecessary purchases for now.
The gender discrepancy in job loss appears to be particularly stark in Vermont, where in November more than 73 percent of the 10,400 Vermonters receiving regular unemployment insurance benefits were women, according to a report issued by the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office last month.
Working women in New Hampshire also have been hard-hit. While male workers saw a 0.7 percent reduction in workforce participation from February 2020 to November, female workers saw more than twice that with a 1.7 percent reduction in labor force participation, according to a COVID-19 unemployment update from New Hampshire Employment Security. While men saw a slightly greater drop between February and May, they have recovered more quickly and gained more jobs than women did between May and November.
In the update, Brian Gottlob, the director of N.H. Employment Security, said the pandemic has highlighted the barriers to work that the cost and availability of child care can create, especially for women in New Hampshire. Therefore, improving access to child care “may, in fact, be one of the most effective stimuli available” to boost the state’s economic recovery, Gottlob wrote.
In addition to having additional child care demands to contend with, women also make up a large portion of workers in many of the industries most affected by the pandemic. From August through November, the largest shares of unemployment benefits in Vermont went to people in the accommodations and food services sector, followed by the health care and social services sector and the retail sector, according to the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office report.
Many of these industries were immediately impacted when the pandemic first hit and will also be slower to come back, predicted Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women. Brown said the pandemic has illustrated systemic inequalities that were already there, such as working women in Vermont tending to earn less money and being more likely to live in poverty than men. Women in Vermont make up a disproportionate share of those making less than $11 per hour — likely meaning a tipped wage, since Vermont implemented an $11.75 statewide minimum wage Jan. 1 — which makes them less likely to qualify for benefits such as paid leave or health insurance, according to the commission’s weekly dashboard on the pandemic’s effect on the state’s women.
In addition, women tend to take on a larger proportion of household tasks. The shift to remote learning for students and changes in the availability of child care pushed some women to a “breaking point,” so that they said, “I can’t actually manage all of this, so something has to go,” Brown said.
Emotional and financial struggles
Women who left the workforce not only face immediate financial implications, but also aren’t paying into Social Security, retirement or savings accounts to put them in better financial positions down the road, according to Brown.
Once women return to work, they may have trouble finding jobs at the same level or salary as when they left, said Kristin Smith, a visiting research associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College who focuses on women and work and working family policy. Given the challenges the pandemic has posed for children’s mental health and well-being that may outlast the pandemic itself, Smith said she doesn’t think women who have left to tend to their children’s needs will immediately rejoin the workforce when the immediate crisis ends.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a switch,” she said.
For 47-year-old Katie Kitchel, a Norwich resident, her part-time job as director of outreach at Northern Stage in White River Junction was her “dream job.” She started in the summer of 2019 and “had just begun to spread my wings and was so hopeful about my new career in the arts” when, due to the pandemic, she was furloughed last March.
With three boys at home since then — one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school — Kitchel’s time has been filled by home schooling her youngest and helping them all navigate the loss of their usual extracurricular activities. Kitchel has been able to continue her other part-time job teaching a “music together” class for the Upper Valley Music Center, which has pivoted to virtual lessons. Her family also was not reliant on her income. Her husband’s remote work for the exercise app Strava has continued successfully amid the pandemic, she said.
But still, she said she mourns the loss of her new career and also the huge impact the pandemic has had on the industry she loves. Kitchel said she’s been proud to watch as Northern Stage has pivoted to offer online programs, and she believes the theater company will survive this difficult time.
“I’d love to hope that there’s a place for me there, but I don’t know,” she said.
Wendy Jackson, a 57-year-old South Woodstock resident, lost her job as a dining room manager at Simon Pearce in Quechee when the pandemic first hit in March. It was initially a temporary layoff, but Jackson said it became permanent at the end of June. She had been making ends meet with unemployment and a “rainy day fund” from an inheritance following the death of her aunt but decided she needed to plot out her next step.
She stripped her resume of dates “so people wouldn’t know how old I was” and “started applying for anything and everything.”
She estimates she applied to three dozen jobs over the subsequent months, landing five interviews. She finally found a position as the facilities office manager at Kendal at Hanover in December, one week before her unemployment benefits were set to expire.
“Once I got the interview, I was able to sell myself,” she said.
Still, she estimates she’s earning roughly 20 percent less than she was making at Simon Pearce. She also deals with a longer commute and went months without making contributions to her retirement plan.
“Because of my age, I had some goals in mind of what I needed to be saving,” she said. “I feel like I’m behind.”
Quechee resident Cat Guay, who is 38, lost her job at a Burlington restaurant during the lockdowns of the spring. Since then, the pandemic has been a balancing act between her concerns about health and safety, her need for income and her eligibility for public financial help.
Though she was called back to work in June, Guay said she opted not to return so she didn’t have to serve people not wearing masks or carry their dirty plates.
She was able to remain on unemployment because she has Churg-Strauss syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects her lungs and which she worries could put her at risk of serious symptoms should she contract COVID-19. At baseline she has asthma, but she’s had pneumonia half a dozen times since she was diagnosed during her first year of college at the University of Vermont.
Because of her condition, Guay said she lived in terror at the beginning of the pandemic when much was unknown about the virus and how to prevent its spread. Her partner got their groceries and went to the post office.
“I was so anxious,” she said.
One upside of her reduced income is that Guay was able to qualify for Medicaid. Having health insurance has given her regular access to an inhaled steroid to manage the symptoms of her condition that would normally cost $400 per month and she previously struggled to afford, she said.
Though she returned to work at Trail Break Taps + Tacos in White River Junction when it reopened in August after the $600 per week supplemental unemployment benefits expired, Guay said her boss there has allowed her to work as she feels safe doing so. She has since stopped working again as COVID-19 cases surged in the region.
“I would like to be vaccinated first before I consider going back,” she said.
But Guay, who said she’s not certain when she might expect to be vaccinated, may have to reconsider her return date in mid-March when the extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits is slated to run out.
“Now that there’s the extra $300, it’s manageable,” she said.
Support for employees
Some Upper Valley employers have offered new forms of assistance for employees to help keep them working amid the pandemic. Dartmouth-Hitchcock implemented an earned time donation policy, allowing employees who earn more time off than they need to donate it into a pool for other workers to draw on as needed, said Sue DeGrowsky, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s director of benefits.
“We’re doing the best we can to accommodate people,” DeGrowsky said. “We want to keep our employees. Our employees are valuable.”
Beginning in October, the Lebanon-based health system also started offering employees a free one-year membership to Care.com, a website used to connect people with caregivers for children, older adults or pets, DeGrowsky said. In addition, Dartmouth-Hitchcock also offers help loans for employees who need assistance with a immediate financial crisis such as to stop an eviction, repair a car, or pay bills associated with the loss of a loved one.
Brown, at the Vermont Commission on Women, said she hopes the pandemic draws attention to pre-existing challenges such as access and affordability of child care, as well as the need for broader paid family leave programs and livable wages.
“My hope is that people will understand that the way it was before was not good for women,” Brown said. “We should not be trying to go back to normal.”
For now, Epler said she’s focused on “just doing the best we can.” It feels like “we’re in a holding pattern,” she said. Her daughter isn’t making progress academically, but at the same the family has what they need, Epler said.
“We have a very blessed life, and we’re thankful for it,” she said.
She and Autymn spend about three hours in the morning focused on school work during Autymn’s remote learning days. They try to take a break in the afternoons, have lunch and take a walk. Springfield elementary schools were slated to return to four days a week of in-person learning on Thursday, Epler said. But she said expects she’ll still need flexibility in her schedule should the schools shift learning models again. On Tuesday, Epler said both her daughters had cold-like symptoms, so they were going to be tested for COVID-19.
Once everyone is vaccinated and the pandemic winds down, hopefully by next school year, Epler said she hopes to return to “whatever normal was before.” Given her broad skill set in nursing, she’s confident she’ll be able to return to the workforce without much difficulty.
“I like what I do,” she said.