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story.lead_photo.caption Stevi Knighton makes ramen noodles for her two sons, 10-year-old Ari, left, and 12-year-old Hayden, right, and their friend, Michael Hughes, after school. (Courtney Hergesheimer/The Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

Prior to the pandemic, Stevi Knighton had found a rhythm, juggling single parenthood, work, and her passion for poetry and performance.

But by the summer of 2020, she'd been laid off from her job as a grants and services coordinator. The gig she lined up on the main stage at the Columbus Arts Festival was canceled. To earn income, she delivered groceries, sold custom T-shirts and performed virtually — all while caring for her two sons, 10 and 12, who were forced to attend school online.

Knighton collected unemployment, but she's still trying to track down a much-needed stimulus payment. She has a new job working from home for an education solutions company — but it pays a low wage.

"My T-shirts say, 'Hope is powerful,'" said Knighton, 37, of the Near East Side, Columbus, Ohio. "It's the thing that keeps you going. I have a lot of hope that everything will work out. But, full disclosure, I'm definitely nervous."

One year after the pandemic, studies show that women — particularly mothers — and people of color have an uphill battle to economic recovery. The higher rates at which they were pushed out of the labor market exposed longstanding systemic inequalities.

Disproportionate impact for mothers

In January, about 10 million, or a third, of women living with their school-age children, were not working, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau. This was 1.4 million more than January 2020.

By contrast, the number of fathers of school-age children who were not working was 3.8 million.

Not only are women more likely to work in service positions or other jobs impacted by pandemic closures, but they are also responsible for a larger share of child care and unpaid domestic labor — including managing their children's schooling — according to a report by the Hamilton Project economic policy initiative.

While all single mothers had greater declines in active work, women of color suffered the most. For example, the rate at which Black, non- Hispanic single mothers lost jobs was 7.5 percentage points higher in January 2021 than in January 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For white, non-Hispanic single mothers the increase was 5 percentage points.

The bureau also reported the percentage of unemployed single mothers by race, showing Asian, non-Hispanic women at 9.5 percent, followed by Black, non-Hispanic women at 9.3 percent, Hispanic women at 8.8 percent and white, non- Hispanic women at 5 percent.

In Columbus, the nonprofit organization Motherful focuses on providing resources, community and education to single mothers. Executive Director Heidi Howes said the pandemic highlighted just how much care work mothers do at home, now compounded by schooling and the increased risk of burnout.

"This is the invisible work of women and moms that we don't pay for and we don't acknowledge," said Howes, who co-founded Motherful in 2018 with Lisa Woodward. "For some of the moms we've been in contact with, it has been disastrous."

Responding to reports of food insecurity, Motherful supplements groceries for up to 30 families per week, due in part to a collaboration with Trader Joe's.

South Side mom Ciera Shanks takes advantage of this service, which is helping her save money to improve life for her 10-year-old daughter.

"I only make $15 an hour, and I still don't have food assistance," said Shanks, who is 30. "I make too much. It's only because of (Motherful) that I'm able to follow this financial plan."

Last year, Shanks was making ends meet by working part-time at the YMCA, studying early childhood education at Columbus State Community College and driving for Uber. She was laid off amid the pandemic and stopped working for Uber to avoid exposure to the virus.

She eventually found a job working from home for an addiction and behavioral health facility, but the stress of the new position, along with managing her daughter's education, took a toll. She decided to take a break from school.

"I got depressed and had to go into counseling for myself and have my daughter go into counseling when COVID first hit, because it was a really hard transition," she said. "I felt like I had finally gotten on my feet emotionally doing what I love, and it was taken away."

'Motherhood is a very difficult job'

According to survey data analyzed by the Hamilton Project, women with a lower rating on the mental health index are associated with poor economic outcomes. And multiple women benefiting from Motherful's resources have reported some mental health struggles.

Shanks is not the only one experiencing a detour in her education and career paths. Mothers often experience V-shaped employment patterns, or up-and-down work cycles. Brought on pay disparity and unequal access to promotions and advancement, this trend may be prolonged by the pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau report.

As a result, women could see a decrease in total lifetime earnings.

Access to affordable child care could help mothers return to the labor force, but some still fear their children will be exposed to the coronavirus.

At the onset of the pandemic, Nyshia Gentry put her 3-year-old son in day care but had to pull him out and get him tested when one of the teachers came down with COVID-19. Additionally, her 7-year-old had to transition to virtual learning following an outbreak in his classroom.

Gentry, who has since been laid off from her job at a warehouse, is looking for work-from-home opportunities.

"I'm scared if anything happens at school again, I'd have to quit," Gentry, 26, said of the South Side. "(But work-from-home employers) expect you to be a lot more flexible. It's like, 'No, I have kids.' They think because you're at home, you should be able to work any time."

Gentry said she is often frustrated by the "strong single woman" stereotype, which can be harmful.

"We need help, too," she said. "We need a break, too."

In Howes' opinion, that help should come in the form of a "mothering wage."

"Motherhood is a very difficult job," she said. "We don't recognize or value mothering skills. We think about it as a personal choice, but we're raising workers to be part of this capitalistic society. It's all on mothers who don't get paid to raise them."

When it comes to race, the coronavirus pandemic has shed light on major economic and health disparities.

There was already a large racial wealth gap brought about by the legacy of slavery, segregation and housing discrimination. For instance, in 2019, the median Black household wealth in the country was 13 cents for every $1 of wealth for median white households, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization.

Given the correlation between poor living conditions and poor health, people of color had the highest COVID-19 mortality rates. More likely to be employed in frontline positions, they had greater exposure, and were forced to take more time away from work due to coronavirus symptoms, as outlined in a report by the National Partnership for Women & Families.

However, there were many people of color who could not afford to take time off during the pandemic. For shorter leaves (10 days or less), half of Latino workers and one third of Black workers had no form of paid time off, according to the report. And compared to white workers, Black workers were 83 percent more likely to be unable to take unpaid leave.

(The percentages for Latino and Native American, Pacific Islander and multiracial workers were 66 percent and 100 percent, respectively.)

To meet FMLA requirements for unpaid leave, employees have to be on the job for a certain period of time. Research shows people of color have less access to full-time work and are more likely to experience discrimination in the labor market. Furthermore, if they do have access to paid leave, they are less likely to have enough savings or resources to make ends meet.

'Everything came to a halt'

Keisha Riley knows some of the economic struggles all too well. Prior to the pandemic, the South Side mother of four was making money by cooking, cleaning, selling items at flea markets and working as an independent home health aide.

For several years, she was providing building maintenance for a community center, but chose to leave.

"I had an issue with some of the treatment there and the pay," said Riley, 48, of the South Side. "I just didn't feel like they were in my corner as an employee."

She also began caring for her 79-year-old mother, who struggled with rheumatoid arthritis. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic made matters worse.

"Everything came to a halt," she said.

Riley said she has been frustrated by the time-consuming application for unemployment and food assistance.

She said she has been grateful for programs that helped her lower utility bills and access internet service at home. But she has seen other people of color struggling even more.

"I've known people that have lost people," she said. "They don't have access to certain things. Just in general, people are losing their homes."

Riley's mother died in April.

On top of health and economic struggles, Black people have also had to contend with the psychological impact of last year's social justice uprising — not to mention the everyday fear of police violence in their neighborhoods. Columbus has seen its fair share of high-profile police killings of Black people, including the deaths of Casey Goodson Jr. and Andre Hill in December alone.

Communities of color may also be waiting a while for true economic recovery. For instance, although the national unemployment rate dropped to 6 percent in March, it is 13.4 percent for Black workers and 11.5 percent for Latino workers.

In the meantime, Riley said she registered her food-delivery business with the state.

"My goal is to buy property this year and to get my business off the ground," she said. "I definitely don't want to depend on anybody else. And I feel like the pandemic has shown us that you really need something of your own."

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