CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - Sherika Kemp has been trying to hide her stress and tears from her four children as her savings quickly dwindle.
Kemp, a 39-year-old substitute teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, had her last day of work in March. She applied for unemployment, but the state denied her because she didn’t earn enough to qualify.
She has applied for more than a dozen jobs since then while balancing taking care of her daughters: 4-year-old twins, an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old.
Though she has two master’s degrees in Human Relations, Kemp still hasn’t been able to find a job in her field. And even if she does get hired somewhere, she’s worried about the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“There’s still that fear in the back of my mind like I’m putting myself and my kids in danger by possibly getting a job,” she said. “But I need to work – I’ve got to provide for my children, as well.”
As COVID-19 devastates the economy, women are bearing the brunt of the job losses.
Women between the ages of 20 and 64 make up about 37% of the state’s labor force, according to census data. Yet 58% of the nearly 835,000 workers who filed N.C. unemployment claims in March and April were women, state data show.
In Mecklenburg County, about 40% of the labor force is female, but women filed 58% of the claims. All but two counties in North Carolina – McDowell and Ashe, both in the western part of the state — reported more women applying for unemployment than men, according to the state Department of Commerce data.
Women face long wait times to receive unemployment benefits as the state is deluged with claims. And with the responsibility of child care, that loss of income is likely to be particularly devastating for women and their families, experts say.
As the economy starts to reopen, women will be faced with a difficult choice: stay at home with the children, who are out of school for the year, or go to work and find child care, even as many day care centers remain closed.
“For those who are struggling to work two and three jobs to take care of their families — to be hit by corona absolutely throws a wrench in the work that they’re doing to ensure that all of their needs are met,” said Michelle Meggs, executive director of UNC Charlotte’s Women + Girls Research Alliance.
WOMEN’S JOBS HIT THE MOST
While the 2008 recession hit majority male industries initially, many of the sectors suffering from the coronavirus shutdown disproportionately employ women.
About 24% of the layoffs in North Carolina in March and April were in the leisure or hospitality industry. Women in North Carolina make up about 57% of those workers.
Another hard-hit sector in the state was education and health, which made up about 11% of the March and April layoffs. Women in North Carolina comprise about 80% of those workers.
By comparison, less than 2% of the March and April unemployment claims were from workers in construction. Men dominate that industry in North Carolina, making up more than 90% of construction workers.
The sectors that were impacted the most this time around also tend to be lower paid. Women are more than 7 in every 10 minimum wage workers in North Carolina, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“The reality of an economy where people are living paycheck to paycheck is being demonstrated right now,” said Alexandra Sirota, director of the Budget and Tax Center at the North Carolina Justice Center.
The disproportionate crisis for women could also drive an increase in childhood poverty. And once the courts open back up, women who lost their jobs may face a wave of evictions.
“Where do these women and their children and their families go if they lose the housing that they currently have?” Meggs said.
LIMITED CHILD CARE OPTIONS
If Kemp does find a job, she’ll face a decision that many other mothers will soon reckon with as the economy starts to reopen: what to do for child care.
Typically once an employee is called back on the job, they cannot continue to receive unemployment benefits. The federal stimulus bill does allow, in some cases, primary caregivers to receive unemployment if their child is out of school due to the pandemic.
“Women have to make the choice: What are you going to do with your children?” said Melba Evans, president of the National Organization for Women’s Charlotte chapter. “There is a huge burden that has fallen on women.”
Still, day care centers remain closed, and a number are at risk of permanently shutting down. According to a recent survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, nearly 1 in 3 child care providers in North Carolina said they would not survive being closed for more than two weeks without public support.
Nearly 30% of the children who attend C.O.S. Kids Matthews live with single parents, many of whom have now lost their jobs, said Donna Sand, director of children’s programs. She went from having 180 children regularly attending to 35, which has been a major financial hit for the center.
Because Kemp is not at work, she has not been sending her two youngest daughters to C.O.S. Kids. And with schools closed for the year, her two oldest have been at home.
Though the child care facility has been taking safety precautions, she’s worried about sending them outside of the home again.
“The fear of something happening to myself or one of my kids … the thought of that just terrifies me,” she said.
ERASING WOMEN’S GAINS
Research shows the coronavirus risks undermining the progress women have made in the workforce.
In December, women held more than half of jobs for the first time in close to a decade. But this week, a new study from the London-based Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University College London Institute of Education found that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit than fathers.
Women-owned businesses are suffering too, especially as many are concentrated in industries that were shut down, such as nail and hair salons.
When Gov. Roy Cooper shut down personal care businesses to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the end of March, the impact was immediate for aesthetician Candice Johnson.