How will Utah lawmakers help women and families recover from the COVID-19 economic downturn?

The Salt Lake Tribune is asking all 104 state lawmakers what they are doing to help women as the Beehive State looks to successfully emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the House of Representatives are partitioned by plexiglass as the Utah State Legislature opens the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Advocates say there are a few bills this session that could help Utah women recover from the "shecession" during COVID-19.

As women across the country continue to face a “shecession” from the coronavirus pandemic, there are a few bills in the state Legislature that could help Utah women navigate the economic downturn and recovery.

Still, Gabriella Archuleta, YWCA Utah’s public policy analyst, said she’s “surprised” and “disappointed” that more state lawmakers haven’t worked on bills related to child care or living wages and employment issues during the 2021 general session.

“It’s a glaring hole in policymaking this year,” Archuleta said.

Women have been disproportionately affected during COVID-19, as nearly a million mothers in the U.S. have left the workforce, and many may not return. With schools closed this spring, and now many students learning online as child care providers struggle to stay open, moms have faced the brunt of family caregiving responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Utah has consistently had one of the worst gender wage gaps in the country and the state’s child care industry had difficulty meeting the demand from families even before COVID-19. And there hasn’t been much “appreciation” or “concerted attention” at the state Capitol this year “for the fact that the recession has hit women harder,” according to Anna Thomas, a policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children.

The Salt Lake Tribune sent a survey Tuesday morning to each of Utah’s 104 state lawmakers, asking what they are doing to help women as the Beehive State looks to successfully emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, and what more should be done to support them during COVID-19 and beyond. Their responses will be used in future reporting.

Now, more than halfway through the session, bills relating to sexual assault, domestic violence, abortion and access to contraception have made some progress. Other legislation, including a proposal that would eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products and another that would lead to Utah ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, are still stuck in committees.

Aside from a couple of bills related to the minimum wage, advocates and public policy analysts say there’s one piece of legislation that would directly help women during the pandemic: HB277.

Stabilizing child care

The bill, proposed by Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, would continue the expanded access to child care subsidies that Utah implemented last year with federal emergency relief money.

Essentially, it “will ensure that the eligibility requirements for Utah families to get a child care subsidy will be as generous as possible ... for the next couple of years while this next big chunk of relief money is spent,” Thomas said.

The bill would also direct the Office of Child Care “to pay child care providers their subsidy payments based on enrollment, rather than attendance,” Thomas said. This “creates a lot more stability for child care providers,” she said, especially with recent fluctuation as children have been in and out of school and people have been quarantining and missing work while sick.

In Matthew’s district, there are many families who have both parents working outside the home “in order to keep a roof over our heads and to keep food on the table,” she told a legislative committee last week.

“We depend on the child care sector to allow us to perform our jobs and to continue to provide for our families,” Matthews said. This bill, she said, “has the potential to help a lot of people.”

Before the pandemic, Utah’s current system was only meeting about a third of the need for child care in the state, according to a report released last year from the state’s Office of Child Care.

During the spread of COVID-19, the state rolled out a grant to help child care providers stay open. Thomas said she’s heard from providers across Utah “who say, straight up, if it weren’t for the operation grant and the changes in subsidies” that have come from extra federal funding, they “would be out of business.”

“As we look ahead to the end of this pandemic ... child care is something that we absolutely cannot recover without,” Thomas told the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee, in support of Matthews’ bill, along with Archuleta.

The committee voted unanimously Wednesday in support of HB277, sending it to the House floor.

Other bills that could help

There are a couple of other child care bills, which haven’t been heard in committees yet, that Archuleta and Thomas said they are watching this session.

HB271, sponsored by Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, would increase the number of children that a child care provider can care for without having to get a residential child care certificate.

This certificate typically involves background checks on everyone in the home, an inspection for health and safety issues and about 10 hours of training a year focused on emergency response, CPR, first aid and more, according to Thomas.

While this bill could help home child care providers serve more families, she said, Voices for Utah Children is opposing the bill.

“We don’t think this is the right direction to go,” Thomas said. “Especially in a pandemic, you want to make sure that people who are caring for a substantial number of other people’s kids in their home, that there are some minimal safety requirements.”

There’s also SB132, from Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, which would create a sales tax exemption for construction materials used to open or expand a licensed child care program. This wouldn’t address all the issues and costly expenses that come with opening a center, but it’s a step, said Angie Cook, director of business development and policy with Utah Child Care Cooperative.

Another bill that hasn’t moved much is HB351, which provides parental leave to state employees after the birth or adoption of a child. Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna, sponsored the legislation.

Thomas said she hopes there will be more momentum this session around SB80, from Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, which would add “protective hairstyles” such as braids, locks, Afros, curls and twists to the definition of race and prohibit employment discrimination on those grounds.

“I think it’s very misunderstood in Utah, especially, and on the hill, specifically, what a huge impact this kind of stuff has on working women of color,” Thomas said, and on “the young people who are still in school and looking ahead to their professional career.”

Moving forward

It’s been a “very weird” session in the Utah Legislature, Thomas said. Going in, she wasn’t expecting too many major policy changes, since it’d be tough for Utahns to interact with their lawmakers as they figured out how to meet virtually.

Thomas said she’s been pleased, though, with what has happened, such as the support for Matthews’ child care bill and potential funding for optional extended day kindergarten.

“My hope is that the momentum from these conversations about these bills, whether people are for them or against them, will help carry into more legislative interest in these issues,” Thomas said. “And that coming out of the pandemic, moving into the next year, we’ll have a head of steam to address some of these issues.”

After this session ends, Archuleta said, she will be preparing for next year and working on solutions for what she sees as overlooked issues in 2021. That includes livable wages, paid sick leave, a more affordable child care system and affordable housing, she said.

“But I really think ... it kind of starts with the livable wages, because if you earn better wages, you have better access to housing,” Archuleta said, and “you’re in a better position to afford child care.”

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 by clicking here.