Women in the Workplace in a Pandemic World
The COVID-19 pandemic is hard on everyone in the workplace. The printing industry was designated as an essential service quickly after the pandemic declaration through the hard work of Lisbeth Lyons, the PRINTING United Alliance VP of Government Affairs, and other industry leaders. Because of this designation, virtually all printing companies were able to continue to do business during the pandemic. Unfortunately, not all of the employees were able to do the same.
For the first time since people kept track of these numbers, women left the workforce at a higher rate than men. And it was more than just a little higher — it was staggering at times. A U.S. Census Bureau survey earlier this year found that 80% of people who left the workforce since the pandemic were women. For parents with children under 10 years old, 10% more women than men were contemplating leaving the workforce. When the school year started in September 2020, women left the workforce at five times the rate that men did, largely due to the need to care for children who would be remote learning.
According to Pew Research, this number includes disproportionate numbers of Black and Latina women, who comprised less than one-third of women in the U.S. labor force, but accounted for 46% of the total decrease of women in the workforce.
And for those women that remained in the workforce, a McKinsey & Company report from March showed that one out of every four women, compared to one out of every five men, considered downshifting their careers during the pandemic. Women also were disproportionately providing care to family members who were ill or needed care no longer available due to COVID-19 protocols.
There is good news for women, though, after what seems like a long period of only bad news. Employers are in desperate need of workers. They want women to return to the workforce and will be forced by the competition for workers to “meet women where they are” in terms of their needs in order to return to the workforce. Here are some suggestions for employers to consider and for women to demand. The good news is, these suggestions will also attract potential workers from every demographic, not just women.
- Flexible Scheduling. The need for women to have work schedules that accommodate school and childcare schedules is critically important for greater participation in the workforce. Create schedules that allow for shorter shifts.
- Child Care. Provide in-company day care and before-and-after school care. Work with the school district transportation team to add the company to a bus route for after-school drop off. Have a person or people who are available to take care of the children and help with homework while their parent is finishing the shift.
- Job Sharing. Offer job-sharing opportunities whenever possible. For an eight-hour work day, create two four-hour shifts for one position that can be filled by two different people. Stick to the schedule without asking one person to cover the other person’s shift if they are not at work. Create a team environment where each person sharing the position knows their role and what needs to be accomplished.
- Hire a Floater. Train an employee who can cover for absent employees in several positions. Cross-training the workforce will also provide coverage. This will allow production and services to be minimally affected by absences, which may occur more frequently throughout the pandemic.
- Paid Leave. Offer paid leave that allows for employees to use it for shorter periods of time. Two-hour blocks of time help “right-size” the amount of time that a parent may need when the person who provides their morning child care calls in sick and the employee needs to stay home to get their child to school, or when an elderly parent needs to go to the doctor.
- Competitive Wages and Generous Benefits. Offer wages and benefits that make going back to work worthwhile. Women will return to the workforce if the difference between net pay and unemployment benefits is significant. This doesn’t necessarily mean that government safety-net benefits are too generous. It may also mean that a company’s wages are too low and the benefits too lean.
- Tuition Contributions and Student Loan Assistance. Educational debt is the second highest consumer debt after home mortgages. Offer contributions to tuition for workers who are pursuing a secondary education. Offer student loan assistance for those who are already in debt. This could come in the form of a PTO buyout, a performance bonus, or whatever method that would minimize tax consequences for the employee.
- Appreciate Your Employees. Providing some or all of these benefits will improve recruiting. But employees will sense if they are resented because the company is spending more money to do it. Companies should provide what is financially feasible and appropriate and be careful not to create a vibe that the employees for some reason should not have these benefits.
The need for employees can be satisfied by courting the largest segment of workers who left due to the pandemic: women. Be aware of why women needed to leave their employment and be creative with solutions addressing these issues. The company will gain the trust and loyalty of its new hires, so not only will immediate needs be fulfilled, but employees will stay with the company longer because of its efforts to make it possible for them to return to, and stay in, the workforce.
Adriane Harrison is Vice President, Human Relations Consulting at PRINTING United Alliance. Adriane assists members with a wide variety of HR matters involving statutes, regulations, policies, procedures, culture, and staffing, as well as the gamut of day-to-day HR issues. In addition, she supports professional development by conducting webinars, participating in panel discussions, and speaking at industry events on human resources issues. Currently, Adriane is the Chairperson of the Graphic Communications Workforce Coalition, a member of the Women in Print Alliance, and a founder of the Women’s Print Mentoring Network.
Adriane received a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago. As an attorney, Adriane practiced in both the public and private sectors. Her work was in the areas of Constitutional, commercial, securities, and criminal law. Adriane and her family live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.