COVID-19 underscores Wyoming gender disparities as female unemployment surges


CHEYENNE – In the first weeks of the coronavirus closures, the share of women filing unemployment claims in Wyoming skyrocketed to levels far above historical norms, suggesting women face unique struggles in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After Gov. Mark Gordon announced a statewide public health emergency March 13, women made up 51.5% of new unemployment claims in Wyoming in the following three weeks, according to data from the state Department of Workforce Services. 

For perspective, women in Wyoming made up 25.4% of initial claims in the first 11 weeks of this year.

The issue has not been unique to the Equality State. 

An investigation by the Fuller Project found women made up the majority of new unemployment claims in all 17 states from which it obtained data, reaching as high as 67% of claims in Alabama one week.

The statistics are particularly notable considering men outnumber women in Wyoming at one of the highest rates in the country. 

But the figures weren’t entirely surprising to experts, given the disproportionate hit taken by industries largely dominated by women.

Rebekah Smith, director of the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, said the statistics could look worse in the coming weeks, because the Department of Workforce Services has yet to process unemployment claims for those who are self-employed.

“(The department) expects the percentage of women to go up because of things like hair salons and massage therapists that are basically self-employed,” Smith said.

Beyond its immediate impact on employment, the virus underscores longstanding gender inequalities in the state. 

As school districts have closed statewide, the effects of those closures fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. Working mothers are about 10 times more likely to take time off from work to care for children at home than their male counterparts, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

The hardship caused by COVID-19 also comes just months after the Wyoming Women’s Foundation released its 2020 Self-Sufficiency Standard for Wyoming report, which found rising wages have not kept pace with the increasing cost of living in the state.

“We really hope that the self-sufficiency calculator is something that will be referenced when (legislators) are making decisions about things like aid programs, just to have a real good idea of what the cost of living really is,” Smith said.

The effects of the virus also exacerbate Wyoming’s gender pay gap, which consistently ranks as one of the worst in the country.

The so-called “motherhood penalty,” in which child-raising responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, has only deepened with schools and some care centers closing during the pandemic.

“If they took three years off when the baby was born, now suddenly they’re going to have to take more time off because of COVID, so it’s going to be exacerbating that same problem,” Smith explained.

Women living in unstable situations also face particular challenges during the pandemic, as reports of domestic abuse have risen worldwide since the start of the pandemic.

Locally, the dynamic appears to be slightly more complicated. 

Cheyenne Police Department spokesman David Inman said the department saw a 16% drop in domestic offenses in March and April, along with a decrease in calls related to domestic issues.

But the unique circumstances caused by COVID-19 may be forcing some to opt against reporting abuse. Carla Thurin, executive director of Cheyenne’s Safehouse Services, said her team has seen an increase in people inquiring about staying at the shelter, but there has also been a hesitancy to move during the pandemic.

“It’s really putting people who are being abused in a bad situation, because they’re having to decide between their safety and their health,” Thurin said. “We’re having to safety-plan with people on how to stay home with your abuser and still be safe.”

The dynamic, one of many that reflect the tenuous nature of daily life during the pandemic, only becomes more complicated, given the jump in women’s share of unemployment claims.

“They’re trying to deal with not having a job or can’t find a job, then they’re tasked with homeschooling their children,” Thurin said. “It’s just this big, vicious circle.”

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