Utah women work part time at highest rate in U.S.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nile Checketts spends time with her son Wesley, 4, as he plays with a new birthday toy as her 18-month-old daughter Valentine take a nap at their home in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Checketts had a full-time job doing office work, but she quit after having her two children and started scooping ice cream at night part time because of high childcare costs and inflexibility at her job.

Nile Checketts had reached “the final straw.” More than half of her salary was going to the nanny, and her job wasn’t flexible enough for her to be home with her two kids on days the nanny didn’t show up.

So, Checketts quit her daytime office position and got a part-time gig at night at an ice cream shop. “I just felt such a sense of relief not trying to work on child care anymore,” she said.

Checketts, 29, of Salt Lake City, is like many of the women across Utah who were surveyed in a new statewide poll that said they had made this switch. Forty percent of women surveyed who had worked outside the home in the past decade said they had worked both full and part time.

[Read more: More than half of Utah women think they have a lower status than men in the state]

The reasons why Utah women chose — or ended up in — part-time work varied. The largest group, at 41%, said they wanted part-time hours, and their most common reason was to stay home and care for children. A little over 25% cited financial reasons or additional income. Nearly 20% said they limited their work hours because they were in school or had health challenges.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“There are pros and cons to part-time work, absolutely," said Robbyn Scribner, who works part time as the assistant director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah Valley University. “If part-time work is keeping women from earning decent wages and keeping women out of career-track positions, then it’s obviously, in my opinion, not a benefit."

It’s important for businesses to offer “meaningful part-time work" that can help women stay in a career, she said, but it requires creativity. “So many of our companies and our institutions are saying, ‘We can only hire workers that have worked the way they’ve always worked,’" Scribner said, instead of considering how they could fill jobs with part-time workers and flexible hours.

But, she added, "if we can see part-time work as either a short-term solution for women who are in and out of higher caregiving responsibilities, I think it’s definitely a positive.”

In early November, The Salt Lake Tribune and Suffolk University surveyed 400 women, age 18 and older, over cellphones and landlines across Utah through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The margin of error for the labor force questions ranged from plus or minus 5 percentage points to 7.24 percentage points.

[Read more: Utah women want more female leaders in government and business, according to poll]

Utah has the highest rate in the country of women working part time. In 2017, 37.5% of Utah women age 16 and older worked part time, compared to 27.8% of U.S. women, according to a report from YWCA Utah. Women of color in Utah are less likely to work part time than white women in the state, said Valerie LaCarte, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The overall rate of Utah women working part time has remained steady since at least 1990, hovering around 40%, according to Lecia Langston, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

In addition to having many teenagers working part time, Langston said the primary reason why Utah has such a high rate of female part-time workers “is that we have larger families, and it’s just a lot more difficult to work full time and take care of five kids than it is to work full time and take care of one child."

Scribner, 46, of Orem, believes she is “typical of many women” in Utah who “want to be engaged professionally" while also being “highly engaged with their families.” Her six children range in age from 8 to 20.

Four years ago, Scribner was thrilled to find her “fulfilling” part-time job at the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

“But I have told my boss and many other people I would not be working right now if I were required to do this job full time because of the other obligations that I have in my life,” including personal, community and religious commitments, Scribner said.

Robbyn Scribner | Utah Valley University

Catherine Ruetschlin, an assistant professor in the economics department at the University of Utah, said Utah’s high rate of women working part time is also due to the fact that most jobs aren’t set up for both partners to have flexibility to contribute evenly to family responsibilities. And women tend to work in fields that are more likely to be part time, such as retail or personal services.

Plus, there’s “the socialization and cultural influences that affect the way we think about women’s work," and what are “appropriate roles” for women in the labor force “and the way we choose our family planning," Ruetschlin said. She pointed to an analysis released last year that Utah was the second-most sexist state in the country, with Utah women having their own internalized sexism.

According to the Suffolk University poll, 78.75% of the Utah women surveyed had worked for pay outside the home in the past 10 years. (Sixty percent of Utah women worked between 2013-2017, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, including 73% of women with children ages 6 to 17.)

Of the surveyed working women, 18.1% had worked part time, 41.59% had worked full time and 40% had worked both part and full time. There was a split among current part-time workers about whether they’d prefer to work full time; 44.81% said yes, while 50.82% said no, and another 4.37% were undecided.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nile Checketts embraces her 18-month-old daughter Valentine as her son Wesley, 4, plays with a new birthday toy at their home in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Checketts had a full-time job doing office work, but quit after having her two children and started scooping ice cream at night part time because of high childcare costs and inflexibility at her job.

Checketts had started a full-time position doing administrative work after graduating from college in 2013. When she returned from maternity leave after having her son, she cut down to about 30 hours a week. Family and friends helped out since she and her husband, who was going to school and worked 20 hours a week, couldn’t afford a nanny or day care.

But after Checketts had her daughter, they looked into day care and nannies again. Finding quality day care was pricey, and “to find a good nanny, it’s like $18 an hour for two kids,” she said. “That was not feasible for us.”

They eventually settled on nannies they could afford, but when the nannies didn’t show up some days, Checketts had to call work and make arrangements to stay home. She said her employer had no empathy or flexibility and essentially told her, “You need to figure something out because it’s inconvenient for us.” Checketts said, “I literally broke down in tears in her office."

“There are companies that just do not value the diversity of a mother in the workforce," Checketts said.

[Read more: Utah women agree: Business and government leaders should work on the gender wage gap]

Checketts quit her job and started scooping ice cream at night so she could watch her children during the day when her husband worked. She would’ve stayed at the ice cream shop if it hadn’t closed in October. Now, with her kids ages 4 and 1, she’s looking for another part-time job.

“I have to work. I’m OK with that. I enjoy working. It gives me a sense of identity outside of being a mother,” Checketts said. “At the same time, I do look forward to the day when it’s not a necessity.” Then, “I hope to kind of put more energy toward finding my passion."

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nile Checketts embraces her son Wesley, 4, as she spends time with him while her 18-month-old daughter Valentine takes a nap at their Salt Lake City home on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. Checketts had a full-time job doing office work, but quit after having her two children and started scooping ice cream at night part time because of high childcare costs and inflexibility at her job.

Mandie Sandberg, 41, of Lehi, has a full-time office job now that her son is 13 and her daughter is 16. But when they were younger, she worked part time a couple of nights a week, and her husband adjusted his schedule so he could get home earlier for their kids. Her job helped bring in extra income for them “to spend more time together as a family,” such as on vacations, going to the movies or out to dinner, she said.

While Abigail Eyre is finishing up her associate degree at Salt Lake Community College, she works about 30 to 35 hours a week as a nanny. “It works with my schedule, so I can kind of just go straight from school to work and then pick my own hours. ... I mainly just decided to do that because I needed some money going through college, and I just really enjoy what I do,” said Eyre, 21, of Cottonwood Heights.

Nationally, women outnumber men in part-time jobs, said LaCarte, of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Younger and older women are more likely to work part time. And women are far more likely to work part time for child care reasons than men, she said.

“Part-time work is tricky,” LaCarte said, “because sometimes it can seem like the perfect arrangement. And it might be in a very specific time in your life.” But it also has long-term consequences, she said. Part-time jobs have lower wages than full-time positions, and they don’t have the same benefits and protections, such as paid time off.

There’s also a stigma around part-time work, for men and women, “that suggests that you’re not as serious about your career or as committed to your employer as someone who is willing to give up their free time or their family time in order to perform their job duties,” said Ruetschlin, assistant professor at the U. “That can follow you across your career," she said, and prospective employers “may judge you" based on your part-time history.

Erin Jemison, MPA, is the Director of Public Policy at YWCA Utah

Women who leave work to raise their children might have trouble returning to the workforce full time, said Scribner, of the Utah Women and Leadership Project. Scribner thinks of her neighbor, who has a master’s degree in audio engineering and left work to rear her children. Fifteen years later, she feels like she can’t reenter her field because technology has changed so much. If she had been able to hold a 10- to 15-hour job while raising her kids, she could’ve stayed more up to date and might have an easier time hopping back in, Scribner said.

Erin Jemison, director of public policy at the YWCA Utah, said she’s heard from many women who feel stuck in part-time positions because they can’t find the same flexibility in full-time jobs. To try to help with this, businesses should look at options like medical and family leave to help employees who need to take time off. The state also recently piloted a remote work option for some employees, and Jemison said she’d “love to see that rolled out in a more comprehensive way across different sectors.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.