Kimberly Cox was about 18 when she started working in the service industry. And she loved it. So much so, more than 20 years and two kids later, she didn’t want to leave.
“I love feeding people. Feeding people since I got that server job years and years ago, it’s my passion,” Cox said. “I don’t know why I like it so much. I like the atmosphere of a restaurant. I like the people I normally work with. I love being a bartender. I like the camaraderie and being a part of people sitting back and enjoying themselves.”
Then it happened: COVID-19. And Cox, like millions of women in Florida and around the country, were forced to leave work. Many, for similar reasons to Cox. Her household includes three generations of family members. There are her elderly parents, her and her husband, and a son and daughter. Before the pandemic hit, Cox’s mother was in the hospital on a ventilator for a different illness, and her son has asthma.
She loved her job. But the risk and uncertainty became too much.
“I found out a girl I had been working with several days in a row had taken a test 10 days prior and got the results back,” Cox said. “She had been working the whole time while being positive. I took my apron off, handed my money to my manager, and said, ‘I’m done’ and walked out after all those years.”
With schools closed and parents to care for, Cox had to stay home as much for safety as caregiving.
According to a report from the Hamilton Project, before the pandemic, women were having a historic moment in labor. Between December 2019 and February 2020, there were more women in the workforce than men, and women had overtaken men in the workforce during a period of job growth for the first time.
“Even though we see ourselves as a progressive society, we do still see women as the primary caregivers in families,” said Rebecca Rewald, program adviser for Oxfam, the anti-poverty organization. “We think it’s women’s jobs to care for children and sick family members. So it’s a social norm thing, but then more practically, women still on average make less than their spouses if they’re in a heterosexual relationship.”
Rewald said when it came time to choose who stayed home, a woman was the logical choice. From the first days of the pandemic until now, women have borne the brunt of pandemic-related job loss, furthering the reality of gender pay gaps and crumbling care infrastructure.
Rewald said that while people often think of bridges and roads as infrastructure, caregiving is just as important. Rewald said that without policies for family leave, affordable child care and equitable health care, women will continue to struggle to reenter and stay in the workforce. Even after the pandemic.
“I think it’s really important for us to realize we have quite a bit of gender inequalities,” Rewald said. “And the pandemic has exacerbated that.”
Data from the United Nations backs that up. Before the pandemic, about 195 million men lived in poverty globally compared to about 206 million women. But by 2030, the disparity in that number will only grow. The UN forecasts by then, 221 million men will live in poverty globally compared to 232 million women.
But Rewald said hope is not lost.
“The biggest opportunity right now is the Build Back Better Act,” she said. “We’re not going to have an equitable recovery if Build Back Better doesn’t pass.”
Oxfam is a global organization aimed at ending poverty and inequality. Rewald specializes in gender and care-work issues. Since the federal government doesn’t have much care infrastructure in place, Rewald said states usually have to step in.
In September, the Century Foundation released a scorecard for care policies in states. Florida was one of four failing states and scored lowest among all 50 states. States were graded based on child care and early learning; home and community-based services and long-term care; paid family and medical leave; paid sick and safe days; and fair working conditions for care workers.
Oxfam did its ranking of how all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have helped working families during the pandemic. Florida ranked 41.
Rewald said Build Back Better has a care-based infrastructure in place that could go a long way in helping Florida’s women get back to work, especially when it comes to care. According to research from the Center for American Progress, about 8%, just over 66,000, of children and families in Florida received child care assistance in 2019. But under Build Back Better, the number launches to nearly 93%, or more than 762,000 children and families receiving child care assistance by 2025.
“We’re going to see long-term impacts for Florida for years to come,” Rewald said. “And what’s so great about those provisions is it’s not just for families to be able to afford care. It’s so states can pay care workers a living wage. That will mean that more people, specifically women who predominantly make up child care, will be able to stay in the field because they will get a living wage.”
But with the omicron and delta variants causing record-breaking surges, women like Kimberly Cox are still facing tough choices. She has held a few odd jobs here and there to make ends meet. But nothing has offered the flexibility to care for her family and financial stability as working in service.
“I would love to go back to work,” she said. “Honestly, I miss being in a restaurant. I hope to see that people will start realizing, especially with all these variants, that this virus does not have a political affiliation. This virus is not made up, and this virus is very serious. And that there’s people like myself and so many that I know that are having to make extreme sacrifices in their lives just to survive. And it’s not just surviving the virus; it’s surviving people who aren’t taking the virus seriously.”
The Senate expects to vote on Build Back Better shortly after the new year. However, it still faces a dubious battle.