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Economy & Business

Women In St. Louis Worry About Their Careers As They Step Back To Care For Their Families

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David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
Melanie Galli practices Zhineng Qigong in her backyard when she has a couple of minutes to herself. She's immunocompromised, so she can't go back to her job as a cheesemonger at a grocery store until cases of COVID-19 go down and it's safe for her son to go to school.

Melanie Galli never thought she’d be a stay-at-home mom — then the pandemic happened.

She spent most of her 20s and early 30s pursuing a fast-paced career in theater production design and working odd restaurant jobs, before getting married and having a child later in life.

For the past 16 years, she’s worked as a cheesemonger at an organic grocery store in St. Louis County. But instead of helping people pick out fancy wheels of Brie and Gouda, now she spends most of her days helping her 5-year-old son Enzo with virtual kindergarten lessons.

“The majority of what I do is sit there to make sure that he's doing what he's supposed to be doing — and not crawling under the table or locking the cat in a closet,” she said.

That means she can’t go back to work, even though her employer could really use her specialized skill set to prepare for the holidays. What’s more, she could lose her certification if she doesn’t work enough hours.

Women all over the country, like Galli, are stuck in this position of putting their careers on hold to help take care of their families during the pandemic.

The U.S. workforce has roughly 2.2 million fewer women in it today than in January. In September alone, 865,000 women left their jobs — four times more than men.

While some women have regained jobs after severe layoffs and furloughs shook the nation early on in the pandemic, many have put the idea of working on hold. Economists say women are getting hit harder during this economic downturn than previous ones, and that could hurt the economy and women's careers for years to come.

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Spiking cases of COVID-19 in the region make things even harder for women facing health challenges, including Galli.

After she took time off work last summer to undergo chemotherapy for her stage 4 breast cancer, her health began to improve, and she planned to go back to work part time this year. But the drug regimen she’s on now leaves her immunocompromised, a major issue during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stuck at home, Galli gets emotional talking about the pressure she feels to hold everything else together while her husband works full time.

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David Kovaluk
Melanie Galli practices Zhineng Qigong in her backyard in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood.

“It just feels like I take care of everybody. And there’s not much time for myself. And some days that’s easier, and some days it’s more challenging,” she said.

On good days, Galli loves that she gets to spend more time seeing her son make progress in school, and her husband, Chris, always steps in when she hits a breaking point.

In the scattered moments she gets to herself, she practices Zhineng Qigong — a Chinese method of mixing slow movements with positive intentions, particularly around health.

“Being able to do that to keep myself sane through all of this has been really huge,” she said.

Women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic

Typically, recessions hit male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction hardest, but that didn’t happen this time around.

Oksana Leukhina, a research officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said employment losses were largest in occupations requiring personal contact — such as retail, tourism and health care.

“Women actually account for 75% of employment in high-contact occupations,” she said. “So the nature of the shock was really different this time around.”

In a recent paper, Leukhina looked at peak unemployment months this year and how men and women reallocated the hours they normally would have spent working.

She found that of all demographics, married women with children, with or without a college degree, redirected the most of their lost working hours — between 45% and 49% — toward household chores and child care.

“So basically, if you lose a 40-hour full-time job, they would allocate 20 hours towards home production and child care altogether. So that's huge, right?” she said. “But men respond much less.”

Leukhina said after day cares closed and schools went virtual, many women couldn’t do their jobs remotely, and it’s likely some chose to leave work to take care of their kids.

"It's hard for me to accept that I'm not going to be the number one travel agent. I just have to be OK with that.”
Beth Horton

She said the issue with so many women staying home now is that their long-term careers will take a hit — and they may decide it’s not worth going back to work at all.

“If you’re unemployed, you're losing your skills relative to those members of your cohort that remain employed. So what this basically means is that when you are to reenter, your wage is going to be substantially smaller,” she said.

Self-employed women like Beth Horton are used to having built-in flexibility. But the pandemic is sucking away the time she planned to spend growing her travel business this year.

The St. Louis resident of the Holly Hills neighborhood homeschools her 5-year-old daughter while her husband works full time from home.

Her commissions have largely dried up ever since theme parks and cruise lines shut down.

“I've always worked in kind of competitive industries, and it's hard for me to accept that I'm not going to be the No. 1 travel agent,” she said. “I just have to be OK with that.”

‘Families don’t have options’

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Families with children, like Horton’s, were more likely to experience job or income loss due to the pandemic, according to a nationwide survey of adults conducted between August and September by Washington University’s Social Policy Institute.

Of the families surveyed, 42% with children reported losing a job or income due to the pandemic, versus 24% without children.

“These effects were concentrated in Black and brown households, poor households, self-employed households and households with very young children,” said Atia Thurman, associate director of Washington University’s Clark-Fox Policy Institute.

She’s been working with Gary Parker, director of the institute, for years to consider the barriers facing Missouri’s working parents and their children. They collaborate with the Social Policy Institute to translate research into policy goals.

“What we're seeing because of the pandemic is families don't have options,” she said. “We already had great disparities and barriers to access to affordable high quality child care before the pandemic in the last nine months — all of that has been exacerbated greatly.”

Thurman said there's a lot employers can do to counteract these trends and keep women in the workforce.

She hopes temporary policies for more flexible remote work are a step in the right direction. But she said pay equity, paid family leave policies and access to affordable childcare are critical, too.

“If we're going to change the tide, not only of the pandemic, but of a history of generational wealth gap. If that's going to change, we need real, structural change,” she said.

Giving women a boost

Leslie Gill is working on that structural change in St. Louis.

She’s the president of Rung for Women, which aims to rebuild St. Louis’ middle class by helping women make more money in stable careers.

She said the pandemic has been particularly devastating for women living in poverty, making her organization's mission more critical now than ever. Gill said she’s seeing a lot of single mothers put their families at risk, because they have to put food on the table.

“You've created a recipe for disaster. So domestic violence is up, child abuse and neglect cases are way up. And, you know, it just creates this cycle of trauma and devastation that it will take probably 10 years for families to recover from,” she said.

Gill said recovering from job loss is particularly difficult for women of color.

“We're in careers or jobs that pay us at the bottom of the ladder,” said Gill, who is Black. “Racism still exists, those gender issues still exist. So when you talk about oppression, women of color have kind of a double whammy.”

Gill is currently recruiting for Rung’s first cohort of 100 women, who will start the six-month program early next year — working toward career and personal goals. She’s looking for women who are resilient but who might feel stuck in various aspects of their life.

“It’s the ripple effect of one woman changing her life that really changes the long-term trajectory of her entire family. So you break those cycles of poverty,” she said.

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David Kovaluk
Lara Thiel sits in her home office in Fox Park, where she recently launched her own interior design business after being laid off from an architecture firm this summer. It's something she always wanted to do.

This summer, Gill began offering career coaching services to women like Lara Thiel, who needed a nudge in another direction.

She lost her job in June at a global architectural firm. The third layoff in a decade was like a gut punch to her confidence, even though she has more than 25 years of experience in the field.

“Our income was cut in half, and we have three kids in three different private schools and you just stop and try to figure out, OK, how are we going to try to manage this?” said the St. Louis resident.

Thiel immediately started searching for jobs, but there was nothing out there. Plus, someone had to keep the kids occupied, and her husband works full time. They have a blended family, so the kids are only in their home half the time, but they all have different schedules and managing that responsibility fell largely on her.

Without many options, Thiel decided to start her own interior design business — something she’s always wanted to do.

“And as soon as I kind of made that decision in my head — that this is the time, this is the opportunity, and this is what I need to do it — then my mindset just changed immediately, and so much of that anxiety was gone,” she said.

Things are slow so far, and she hasn’t been able to dedicate as much time as she would like to getting the business off the ground.

But Thiel said she feels relieved to be investing in herself, instead of worrying about when she’ll find a stable job again.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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