More women are going back to work. But caregiving demands still limit their opportunities.

Wage gaps, cultural expectations and a struggle to pay the bills blunt employment gains

By: - May 12, 2023 3:49 pm

Bernelle Richardson, a labor and delivery nurse and advocate for better child care policies, spends her entire paycheck on child care for her three children. (Courtesy Bernelle Richardson)

Few industries escaped the crippling employment blow dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic. One exception in Rhode Island: construction, which was categorized as an essential industry. 

Anita Bruno, a lifelong carpenter, lost her job anyway. Not because there wasn’t work for her to do, but because she couldn’t show up to her job site while also supervising distance learning for her middle school-aged son. 

“I didn’t have anyone to watch him, so there wasn’t much choice,” said Bruno, a single parent without available family support.

Three years later, her son is back in school, but Bruno hasn’t returned to work in the private construction industry. Instead, she’s channeling her frustrations with the male-dominated trades industry into advocacy as CEO of Rhode Island Women in the Trades, a nonprofit focused on encouraging and supporting women in construction trades. It’s a volunteer gig, but Bruno picks up odd jobs – teaching at a summer camp, for example – to pay the bills.

While women nationwide and in Rhode Island bore the brunt of the pandemic job losses, the “she-cession” appears to be reversing course. In fact, the 60.6% of eligible, working-age women in Rhode Island who have jobs or are actively looking for work in 2022 marks the highest labor force participation rate among women since 2015, according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training. 

The labor force participation rate among Rhode Island working-age women rebounded post-pandemic. (Courtesy Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.)

While still below the 68% of working age men who have or are looking for jobs as of 2022, women’s labor force participation has inched up as the rate among their male counterparts has declined, according to DLT data.

That’s a positive sign to DLT Director Matt Weldon, who sees the reversal as evidence that the barriers that prevented women from keeping their jobs – whether it be industry conditions, child care obligations or flexible work hours – are being torn down.

“In order to compete and to bring talent on, employers had to change their model,” Weldon said. “They’re more accommodating than pre-pandemic because they have to be. If you’re not, and your competitor is, you’ll lose folks.”

Caregiving obligations

But the data only speaks to part of the story. For one thing, the small sample sizes used to create estimates make it hard to draw firm conclusions, said Edinaldo Tebaldi, an economics professor at Bryant University.

Tebaldi also pointed out that Rhode Island’s aging population means the total number of eligible working-age women has shrunk, which means the data can indicate a higher labor force participation rate even with the same number of women working. 

Meanwhile, women still bear a disproportionate brunt of caregiving responsibilities that often tie directly into their ability to work at all. House and family care was named by nearly 60% of non-working women ages 25 to 54 as the reason why they are not in the workforce, according to DLT data. By comparison, just 10% of non-working men in the same age group attributed it to caregiving.

It’s a cycle created by cultural expectations around women as primary caregivers, and perpetuated through continued wage gaps that justify women giving up their (lower) earnings to stay home rather than a male partner, Tebaldi said.

“We still see a very traditional division of labor in households,” Tebaldi said. “And when the cost of child care is really unaffordable, women self-select not to work.”

We still see a very traditional division of labor in households. And when the cost of child care is really unaffordable, women self-select not to work.

– Edinaldo Tebaldi, professor of economics, Bryant University

That’s not just a Rhode Island problem. 

A report published in March by the Center for American Progress shows that women are five to eight times more likely than men to have their employment status affected by caregiving obligations. The disparity is even greater among mothers with very young children (think day care age), who have not enjoyed the same rate of returning to the workforce as those with older (or no) children, said Beth Almeida, a senior analyst for the DC research institute.

While government restrictions that temporarily shuttered day care centers and pre-schools have ended, many of these supports are still hard to access due to staffing shortages that cap participation and create long waiting lists. Then there’s the cost, which for nine in 10 families nationwide is unaffordable – meaning it eats up more than 7% of their income, according to data cited by local child and family advocacy group Right from the Start. 

Rhode Island ranks among the most expensive states for child care, with families paying $10,000 to $40,000 on average per child to attend a licensed home or care facility, according to research by the Center for American Progress.

Leanne Barrett, a senior policy analyst for Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, said the cost of child care forces parents, often mothers, into unnavigable situations.

“A lot of parents are stuck because they can’t afford the cost of child care and they can’t afford to stay home and not work,” she said. 

A lot of parents are stuck because they can’t afford the cost of child care and they can’t afford to stay home and not work.

– Leanne Barrett, a senior policy analyst for Rhode Island KIDS COUNT

Take Bernelle Richardson. The 28-year-old labor and delivery nurse spends her entire paycheck on day care and after-school care for her three children. She opted to take the job knowing child care costs would consume her income because she felt a calling to the profession, she said.

But that leaves her family of five reliant on the money from her husband’s full-time job for everything else: bills, groceries, medical costs.

Anything extra is out of the question.

We definitely could not take a vacation,” Richardson said. “That’s out the window. Even things like birthday parties or cookouts are tough. It’s really just what it takes to keep the lights on at the house.”

Richardson, who is also an advocate with Right from the Start, has heard countless stories like hers, especially from middle-income families who don’t qualify for financial assistance through the state.

Subsidy eligibility limits discourage overtime

State subsidies are increasingly hard to come by. Just over 6,000 children received a child care subsidy through the R.I. Department of Human Services in 2022, versus 10,000 prior to the pandemic, according to data from Right from the Start. 

The decrease reflects reduced state funding as well as what Barrett described as overly limiting income eligibility requirements. Rhode Island’s Child Care Assistance Program is only open to families at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, which translates to $36,400 for a one-person household or $75,000 for a family of four in 2023, according to federal guidelines.

“A lot of people have jobs where they make too much money to qualify,” Barrett said. “We have families that refuse overtime because it will kick them off of child care support. That’s a bigger loss for them than the potential extra income.”

Disability remains the primary reason why working-age men are not in the labor force. (Courtesy R.I. Department of Labor and Training)

Caring for home and family remains the primary reason why working-age women are not in the labor force. (Courtesy R.I. Department of Labor and Training)

More women returning to the workforce isn’t necessarily a signal of economic prosperity and better structural support. That might be true for some, but it’s also a sign that financial strain is forcing women back to work, said Kelly Nevins, CEO of Women’s Fund of Rhode Island.

“When you think about the rising costs of everything and that women, statistically, don’t have quite as much of a nest egg to fall back on [compared with men], it’s no surprise to see so many women getting back into the workforce,” Nevins said. “They had to.”

Richardson would like to cut back her hours to spend more time with her kids, but worries what that means for her family’s financial security.

“A great sacrifice would come with that,” she said. 

Groups like the Women’s Fund, Right from the Start and KIDS COUNT are backing a number of bills under consideration at the State House that advocates say will help address child care access and affordability while relieving some of the caregiving pressures disproportionately burdening women.

A mom brings her young children with her to testify at the State House. (Courtesy Leanne Barrett).

Among them are bills to expand eligibility to state child care assistance, recruit and increase pay for early childhood educators and extend length of time and percentage of wages paid to parents and other family members out of work because they are caring for newborns or sick family members.  

Government policies can certainly strengthen services and in turn, the ability for women to return to work if they chose. But there’s also an onus on the private sector to provide flexibility and better pay. Which is what Bruno hopes to bring to the construction industry through her work with RI Women in the Trades.

Even that advocacy work comes with challenges: towing her now-14-year-old son along when she testifies at late-night hearings at the State House. Even if she lets him home on his own, a recently acquired freedom, she still has to prepare a dinner for him. 

She doesn’t encounter toxic masculinity common at construction sites now, but the State House isn’t exactly brimming with supports for single moms. 

“It is extremely hard as a woman, as a mother, to be in politics,” she said. “They say they want our voice but they don’t make it easy for us.” 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.