Opinion: Solve worker shortage; invest in women

The Kansas State Fair kicked off with a debate between two candidates for governor. During the debate Republican Derek Schmidt was asked if Kansas is better off today than it was under former Gov. Sam Brownback. Schmidt refused to answer the question.

As a state are we better off? Yes. And I think most Kansans would agree.

However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still progress to be made.

Statistically, our economy has improved over the past four and a half years since Brownback left office. But even as the economy has strengthened, much of the improvement has been concentrated in certain areas of the workforce.

Notably, Kansas has major shortages of “pink collar” occupations like teachers, nurses, and child-care workers. These workers have left their professions in droves after bearing too much of the burden of the state’s pandemic response.

Long working hours, inadequate professional support, serious staff shortages, and high COVID-19 infection and death rates among frontline workers, especially during the pandemic’s early stages, have left a mark.

But to blame the pandemic alone would be a mistake. COVID revealed the cracks in our already strained human infrastructure — a system that was built on the labor, paid and unpaid, of Kansas women.

“Caring professions” like nurses, teachers and child-care workers have long been paid significantly less than male-dominated technical and managerial professions.

Workers in these caring occupations have been undervalued primary because they are mostly women. Their status as essential workers throughout the pandemic finally laid that bare for all to see.

But the pandemic didn’t cause the problem.

According to a recent report from United WE, in 2019, Kansas women were less likely to be employed and more likely to be underemployed or not part of the labor force at all. The statewide gender pay gap has also widened over the past five years, and one-third of women workers earn less than $25,000 per year.

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that salaries in the top occupations for women are also lower in Kansas than in the rest of the country, while the top occupations for men are comparable.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, nearly 1 million women nationwide are still missing from the workforce, mostly due to unreliable child care and elder care options.

During the debate both Gov. Laura Kelly and Schmidt acknowledged Kansas’ serious child-care crisis — there is too large a demand for services and too few options, resulting in rising costs that price many women out of the workforce.

Over the past year there has been some action at the state-level that compensated some of these caring professionals by giving bonuses to workers and offering their employers state funds for retention incentives.

But these will likely only have short-term effects.

Offering a one-time bonus to a child-care worker whose average pay is $10.80 an hour is like throwing a single bucket of water on a wildfire. Better than nothing, but wholly inadequate to stop the blaze.

Worker shortages across the country have led to a historic surge in collective action, and Kansas has not been immune to this wave of labor organizing. But with so many women forced out of the workforce, many, especially those low-income women who stand to benefit the most, have been unable to take advantage of the activism that could, if successful, significantly raise wages and better working conditions — union representation reduces the gender pay gap by nearly 40%, per the U.S. Department of Labor.

The under-appreciation of women-dominated occupations did not start with the pandemic, and it certainly won’t end with it either. One-time bonuses are not going to fix the systemic problems causing these shortages.

We live in a society. Not an economy. Even more importantly, we live in communities. And our communities desperately need caregivers and educators.

Kansas needs to reinvest in its human infrastructure, especially its women.

— Alexandra Middlewood is an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University.


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