By: Wendy Doyle, President & CEO of United WE

This article is part of a week-long series for IWPR’s signature Status of Women in the States initiative. The work featured in this series highlights the various ways the pandemic and related economic crisis are impacting women and their families at the state level. This project builds on IWPR’s recent economic recovery report that details the extent to which women, and particularly women of color, have shouldered the greatest burden of the economic crisis, and also proposes a slate of bold policies to ensure a gender-equitable recovery. The pieces included in this series provide a snapshot of what women are experiencing in states across the nation, and highlight the urgent need for federal funding for states and localities. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the impact that the economic recession, record jobless claims, and the shuttering of businesses, schools, and child care centers has had on women all over the United States. The impact on all women in Missouri has been no exception, with women of color disproportionately bearing the brunt of the recession.

United WE released two research reports in 2020, “The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Impact on Women in Missouri” and “The Status of Women in Missouri Research.” These reports demonstrate how women in Missouri are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and identify areas of concern for women that require immediate policy solutions.

Women On The Frontlines

Our research showed that in Missouri, nearly 8 in 10 healthcare professionals are women – slightly higher than the national average – with women of color disproportionately represented in lower-paying jobs. Despite being the foundation of our healthcare response to the pandemic, women are still paid less than men in many healthcare occupations. For example, female registered nurses in Missouri make just $0.77 compared to their male counterparts.

The wage gap is driven by the continued devaluation of “women’s” work – traditionally unpaid work done by women in the home – women’s role in childbearing and rearing, and the disproportionately high number of hours spent performing unpaid labor. Our research also identified that working mothers are twice as likely as men to spend an additional five hours per day on “household responsibilities.” As cited by IWPR and the National Partnership for Women and Families, the gender wage gap is particularly acute for Black, Latina, and Native American women in Missouri, who are paid only 66 cents, 62 cents, and 64 cents (respectively)  for every dollar that white men earn.

Missouri Women Need Access to Healthcare

Access to affordable healthcare is important for women’s physical and mental wellbeing. Insurance is critical in helping women access healthcare and receive preventive care that can preempt more costly illnesses over time. However, 9 percent of Missouri women did not have health insurance coverage in 2018, with women of color more likely to lack coverage, largely as a result of being channeled into low-wage jobs that fail to provide essential benefits. This is why United WE was active in pushing for Medicaid expansion this fall. Voters’ approval of this ballot measure will help close that access gap and we look forward to being a voice in efforts to swiftly implement the expansion program.

Affordable healthcare is an immediate concern because, in addition to our data-based research, we heard this first-hand from Missouri women. We conducted listening sessions around the state of Missouri to hear from low-income and mid- to upper-income women – healthcare was identified as a significant economic barrier not only for women, but for families.

Access to childcare: A concern for Missouri women

Childcare is at the heart of the crisis Missouri women are experiencing. Many women are left making difficult child care decisions as schools continue to balance remote and in-person learning. According to the Center for American Progress, 72.5 percent of mothers in Missouri are sole or co-breadwinners. Over the last ten months, many of those women were forced to drop out of the labor force to care for their families they will not get back to work until they have access to childcare.

A recent study found that Missouri could potentially lose 48 percent of their childcare supply as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the childcare sector. That would leave only one spot in a licensed childcare center for every six kids. In addition, the annual price for center-based care for an infant is more than the average tuition at a public university.

We need to ensure women are not encouraged to pull back from the workforce due to lack of flexibility and supportive policies that will not only impact their short- and long-term economic security, but also the health of our entire economy.

Supporting Women And Families Through Policy Change

United WE’s priority public policy and advocacy focus areas of equal pay and paid family and medical leave have become even more critical during the pandemic. Unlike most developed nations, the U.S. does not have a nationwide program for paid family leave. There is strong evidence that indicates paid family leave programs can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of families, especially Black and Brown families who are most likely to lack access to paid leave through their employers. We must recognize the need for 12 weeks of paid leave with 100% wage replacement for all workers to not only support families, but also keep them and our entire communities healthy and safe.

Cities and counties across the nation are beginning to see its importance. In 2020 Jackson County, Missouri, which covers much of Kansas City, adopted 12 weeks paid family and medical leave for all county employees. This is an important first step in the right direction.

When employers provide options for families, they not only improve the lives of women and men, but they boost the economy. Policies such as flex-time and paid sick leave improve work-life balance while also increasing the labor supply in the job market and maintaining a competitive workforce.

Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond

COVID-19 has already had a significant economic impact on women and families, with Black and Latina women disproportionately impacted and bearing the brunt of the economic recession, and will continue to do so without significant policy changes. To create lasting change, it is critical that policy makers prioritize equal pay, paid family leave, affordable childcare, and flexible work schedules. Now, more than ever, it is critical that we work together to empower women and strengthen Missouri’s economy and democracy.