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Women have been hit hardest by the pandemic’s job losses

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Comedian Shirelle Kinder, seen here at Comedy @ the Carlson, says she hasn't performed stand-up since the pandemic took hold. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Comedian Shirelle Kinder, seen here at Comedy @ the Carlson, says she hasn't performed stand-up since the pandemic took hold.
A year ago February, things were clicking for comedian Shirelle Kinder.

That month, she had achieved her goal of performing in New York City when she was featured at the “All Black Everything” comedy showcase. She shared a stage with rising stars Jay Jurden and Opeyemi Olagbaju. She received positive feedback and made connections.

“I was so excited,” said Kinder, who lives in Rochester. “And then the world closed down.”

Kinder hasn’t done stand-up since the pandemic took hold. First, the clubs closed down. Then, she was unable to translate her brand of comedy to the virtual space. After a while, the events of the last year took a toll, even on someone who trades in levity.

“I never really saw myself as a professional,” said Kinder, who makes ends meet as a bartender at John’s Tex Mex in the South Wedge. “But as soon as the pandemic hit, and my whole money flow changed, I really realized how much money I was making off of comedy.”

She is one of millions of American women for whom the health crisis cut into their working lives.

Women were on equal footing with men in the workforce at the outset of 2020, holding just over half of all jobs. By the end of the year, women were down 5.4 million jobs compared with 4.4 million job losses for men, according to federal Department of Labor data.

Roughly half of the 22 million jobs lost at the height of the pandemic have been recouped, according to the agency. But that still leaves about 10 million jobs outstanding, jobs disproportionately held by women and people of color. The gap is due to steep job losses in three sectors dominated by women: education, hospitality, and retail.

In all, 2.5 million women have left the workforce altogether since the beginning of the pandemic, compared with 1.8 million men, according to the Labor Department. Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris said in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the former figure constituted a “national emergency.”

The Biden administration has seized on several elements of its proposed $1.9 trillion relief plan that officials say will ease the burden on unemployed and working women, including $3,000 in tax credits for each child, a $40 billion infusion in child care assistance, and an extension of unemployment benefits.

“Job loss, small business closings and a lack of child care have created a perfect storm for women workers,” Harris wrote.

AmberDawn Knox is a parent of two children in Rochester and voluntarily stopped working to accommodate pandemic life. Knox, who identifies as non-binary, was self-employed at their own home cleaning business.

They said their chronic illness made it difficult to work often before COVID, but that they loved the job, and enjoyed a certain level of flexibility when they were too sick to work. The pandemic was impossibly unaccommodating.

Knox stopped working in March, as the state went into lockdown, and hasn’t returned. They had young kids to care for, and safety became the household’s first priority.

“I haven't done anything since,” they said, adding that they’ve stayed afloat because their partner is able to work fully remotely, and a disability claim was approved.

Some have taken to calling the economic fallout from the pandemic the first female recession, or the catchier “she-cession.”

An analysis last year by the National Women’s Law Center noted that the female unemployment rate reached double digits for the first time since 1948. The slide represented an abrupt reversal from the beginning of the year, when women held more payroll jobs than men — 50.04 percent — for the first time in a decade.

Kristin Klock, the owner of Root Catering, says the pandemic cut her company in half. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Kristin Klock, the owner of Root Catering, says the pandemic cut her company in half.
Kristin Klock, the owner of Root Catering, a full-service catering company in Rochester, said before the pandemic she employed 35 people and did about $1 million a year in business. The pandemic, she said, cut the company in half.

Root relied heavily on events — about 200 annually, including weddings, fundraisers, workplace meetings, and other gatherings — that dried up during the pandemic.

“It's definitely been devastating,” she says. “From an emotional standpoint, from a business standpoint, it's been an absolute nightmare. You just wake up one day and your business is gone. And it's nothing that you did.”

Such problems are not exclusive to women, of course. People of all demographics have felt squeezed by the pandemic. Also worth noting is the dearth of data on how the pandemic has affected the livelihoods of people in marginalized groups, like transgender or non-binary people.

But, broadly speaking, the pains of the pandemic are felt most acutely by women. Although women occupied more payroll jobs than men just before the pandemic, the jobs traditionally dominated by women — so-called “pink-collar jobs,” such as those that involve social work or child care or secretarial work — remain generally lower-paying.

Now consider that women reduced their working hours more than men to care for children during the pandemic — as much as four to five times more, according to the findings of one study.

Katie Reagan, a bartender from Rochester, has yet to get back behind the bar at The Playhouse in Swillburg. The popular arcade eatery is open for take-out, and Reagan is working, but her hours and pay are nowhere near approaching her days of busy Friday and Saturday nights.

“Bartending was my life,” Reagan said. “The energy, the thrill, the agony of it all. I lived for both the pain and the glory.”

Reagan pursued bartending after she was laid off from a corporate job that occupied most of her 20s. Now, like many who work in the service industry, Reagan is afraid for the future. She wonders how many bars and restaurants will recover, and to what extent.

The Playhouse, a cavernous former church once filled with the carnival-esque lights and sounds of arcade games was completely transformed by COVID restrictions. Most of the games have been returned to the company’s warehouse.

Once a worker who reveled in a busy night, Reagan reduced her hours and her shifts are slower. Regan said she feels stuck between not feeling safe, and having to give up what she loves doing.

“Until I get vaccinated I don't think I'll be behind the bar again,” she said. “Even then, the world and the way we socialize has changed so drastically, will it ever be the same? Will I even be able to make a living doing it again? I haven't found other work yet because, quite frankly, I'm sort of in denial and I just don't want to accept this as reality.”

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at becca@rochester-citynews.com.