As vaccination rates climb and COVID-19 case rates fall, hope is building that our lives are getting back to normal. But even as COVID restrictions ease and the economy reopens, “getting back to normal” is easier said than done for many Coloradans — especially for working moms.

The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 recession isn’t news. It’s been documented for months. It even has a nickname – the She-Cession. But for all the headlines it’s received, the outlook is still bleak.

At a recent White House briefing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said more than 4 million women dropped out of the workforce at the start of the pandemic because of “an unexpected caregiving burden.” That’s Washington code for the closure of day cares and schools, followed by months of remote learning requirements that forced parents to juggle new realities.

“Nearly 2 million have not yet returned” to their careers, Yellen added.

As a working mom of four and the leader of a free-enterprise think tank, I have been outspoken about this crisis for months. I regret to say, the situation in Colorado is worse than the country as a whole.

The Common Sense Institute, where I serve as president and CEO, recently analyzed Colorado’s unemployment data to identify the latest trends. From January 2020 to April 2021, Colorado’s labor force participation rate for moms is still down 4%, and for women overall, is down 2.2 percentage points, lagging behind national rates.

In human terms, this means more than 54,400 Colorado women aren’t even looking for work. For some, their jobs haven’t come back. For others, they cannot realistically go back to work when child care and in-person learning is so unpredictable. Moms need certainty.

Either way, the COVID-19 recovery is failing women, and our leaders are not treating this crisis with the urgency they should. Women are losing a generation of progress. It has to stop, now. Our economy cannot recover without women getting back to work.

The Biden administration has proposed a series of subsidies, mandates and wage requirements for child-care centers as part of the proposed $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Whether you support or oppose those ideas, they’re unlikely to make a difference in the short term, and the short term is when the fight to save women’s careers and economic independence will be won or lost. We know when women are sidelined, they lose out on promotions and raises, and they are less likely to return to work.

With that in mind, there are some great proposals that could make an immediate difference in the lives of thousands of Colorado women.

First: We need to dramatically simplify the regulatory, permitting and insurance requirements for opening and expanding child-care facilities. Colorado has the eighth most expensive child care in the nation. It’s such a byzantine and expensive process that even employers who want to provide on-site childcare are giving up in frustration.

One notable exception is Rachel Carlson, CEO of Denver-based Guild Education, who with the help of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC), refused to accept defeat when pushing for a new day-care center in the company’s downtown office building. Carson’s company had to invest $1 million upfront on renovations and equipment — all the way down to nap-time mattresses — before regulators would even start the review process. Thankfully, after making such a large investment with no guarantee the day care would ever open its doors, the license was approved.

“We took over 100 meetings with regulating bodies to get this thing open,” Carson told Forbes.

How can we possibly solve the shortage of child-care capacity when opening a new day care is this hard? And what good will a subsidy or tax credit do if parents can’t find open child-care spots?

Second: The governor, school districts and public-sector unions representing teachers must commit that full-time, in-person learning will return this fall. No caveats or conditions, just a 100% guarantee. We can’t expect moms of school-aged children to start looking for work again if there’s any doubt that in-person learning will be available when summer break is over.

Even the leaders of the nation’s two largest teacher unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — have conceded this point. Better late than never. Now school districts and local teacher unions that haven’t issued similar public assurances must do so immediately. There can be no room for doubt.

When women are in crisis, our economy is in crisis, and our society is in crisis. It’s time we all started acting like it.

Kristin Strohm is the president and CEO of the Greenwood Village-based Common Sense Institute.

Kristin Strohm is the president and CEO of the Greenwood Village-based Common Sense Institute.


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