On February 3, 2021

Of those collecting regular unemployment in Vermont, 73% are women

By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Among the millions of people who left the U.S. workforce last year, most are women. And nowhere is that more evident than in Vermont, which led the nation with the largest share of unemployment insurance recipients who were women.

New research from the Joint Fiscal Office shows that about 73% of the people collecting regular unemployment benefits in Vermont in November were women, compared to about 51% nationally.

While there are documented reasons for the lopsided impact of the pandemic on women — such as an increase in child care responsibilities and the hit to service industry jobs — it’s not clear why the impact in Vermont is so much greater than in other states.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research touched on the state differences in a recent brief that singled out Vermont and Rhode Island as the states with the highest proportion of state unemployment claims made by women. The report shows that layoffs in the accommodations and food services sectors had been particularly high in those states.

Vermont lawmakers have been learning about the new research through testimony from Joyce Manchester, a senior economist and associate fiscal officer at the state’s Joint Fiscal Office. Manchester presented the figures to lawmakers earlier this month. She’s still working on her findings.

On Thursday, she told lawmakers in the Senate Economic Development Committee that the Covid-19 recession has turned patterns seen in the 2008 recession upside down.

A decade ago, the construction industry was hit hard by the housing crash, putting a disproportionate number of men out of work. But the Covid pandemic in 2020 hit the hospitality industry hardest. Retail, health care and social services have also had to adapt quickly. Meanwhile, construction in Vermont rebounded in June and has been very strong since then.

In August through November of 2020, the largest shares of unemployment recipients by industry were from the accommodations and food sector (between 26% and 34%), and from the health care and social services sector (both between 11 percent and 13 percent), Manchester said.

Women are more likely to work in those sectors than men, said Stephanie Seguino, who teaches economics at the University of Vermont. Seguino said it’s likely women were more affected by a lack of child care during the pandemic and by home-schooling, “because women have greater responsibility for care than men due to social norms.”

Nationally in September, as school started, more than a million people left the workforce and 80% of them were women, she said.

The part that nobody can explain is what put Vermont in the lead nationally for gender disparity for jobless claims.

There is a lot of national data, some of it conflicting, about how women have been affected. Reports from the Rand Corp. and the National Women’s Law Center both documented that women had left the labor force at four times the rate men did in September.

Manchester used Vermont Dept. of Labor data that shows the impact on regular unemployment, not data from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or other new programs set up by the federal government as hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs in the business shutdowns last spring. According to the Labor Dept. data, the share of regular unemployment insurance recipients who were women in Vermont ranged from 55% to 74% between April and November 2020, Manchester said.

Manchester’s report gives lawmakers an opportunity to learn more about policies that have an impact on women, said state Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden.

“I want to compare Vermont to the rest of the country in a lot of different ways to see if we can get a better comparison or tell more of the story as to why it is so disparate in Vermont,” Ram said after Manchester’s presentation. “If nothing else, if we can’t dig too much deeper and we know that it’s a lot about sector and industry, that should give us an indication that we really need to diversify our economy and think about the policy implications of having so many women reliant on hospitality and food service.”

More information needed

The topic of women’s employment loss in the pandemic was the focus of a recent meeting of the state Commission on Women. Director Cary Brown said legislators have been asking her what the state can do to equalize the job impact of the pandemic.

“I am happy to see the Legislature taking this so seriously, and digging into the numbers to see why it is so bad,” Brown said. While the data shows the difference is greatest in Vermont, Covid-19 has caused job loss inequity in every state, she said.

“Nationally, women are leaving their jobs at much higher rates than men are,” Brown said. “It’s too much to juggle. Family responsibilities have only gone up with the pandemic. It was already disproportionately high to begin with; it’s an untenable burden for women.”

More information about women’s workforce participation is needed so that lawmakers can make decisions, Ram said.

“We have just started to scratch the surface,” she said. “Even if we can’t get quantitative information in short order, we need to start asking qualitative questions. Many of us have anecdotal stories from our constituents. We should start building a set of common questions and putting out randomized requests for information for people on unemployment to tell a better story.”

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