Prior to the pandemic, Autumn Goerts was renting an apartment in downtown Honolulu and working as a manager at a medical supply store to support herself and her 9-year-old son.

By March, she had been furloughed. By the time she was invited back to work, she had to stay home to help her son with remote learning.  Now, she’s trying to grow her own marketing and consulting business, but it’s a constant struggle.

“It’s really hard to balance everything,” she said. “There’s been days where I have to drop everything and help make sure that my son’s projects are completed.”

Portrait of Autumn Goerts. January 12, 2021
Autumn Goerts is a single mother who couldn’t afford her rent after getting furloughed last March. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Pandemic-inspired business closures have hurt hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii and accelerated an exodus of those who can’t afford to live in the state anymore. Single parents nationally are particularly struggling to balance financial challenges with caring for children attending school virtually.

Even before COVID-19 hit last year, households led by single mothers in Hawaii were far more likely to be struggling to afford the cost of living compared with two-parent households and households led by single fathers.

About 80% of single female-headed households with children in Hawaii were either in poverty or struggled to afford the state’s cost of living in 2018, compared to about 60% of single male-headed households and less than 30% of married households.

The state already had a shortage of child care options for parents with young children, according to a 2017 report from the University of Hawaii Center on the Family. That’s only worsened since the pandemic hit, with one survey finding that as of November, one in four child care providers in Hawaii was closed.

Advocates say the pandemic has revealed long-standing gaps in Hawaii’s social safety net for single parents, particularly mothers. They plan to push for several proposals, ranging from paid sick leave in the private sector to more flexible teleworking in the public sector, when the 2021 legislative session opens next week.

“We’re a state that values ohana,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, who leads the state Commission on the Status of Women. “The response that I’ve seen for single moms has been the complete opposite.”

Ren Woods, a single mother in Hilo who is also forgoing work to help her daughter at home, says sometimes her situation feels impossible.

“If it were two of us then only one of us would have to be out there and the other could still be at home,” she said. “There’s only so much you can ask from family when they have their own responsibilities. There’s nobody at this point who can help with raising my daughter or help with income.”

Unable To Work

Women in Hawaii make up more than half of retail industry jobs, which were hit hard by pandemic closures. But even as jobs have returned, some single mothers like Goerts haven’t been able to go back to work full time, even if they want to, because of caretaking responsibilities.

Judy Hernandez finds that particularly frustrating as she stays home with her children ages 3 and 5, who were supposed to be in preschool and kindergarten.

“It sucks so much because I love working. It’s like my time off,” said Hernandez, who has worked in various industries including massage therapy. “My children are with me 24/7. I miss working.”

“We’re a state that values ohana. The response that I’ve seen for single moms has been the complete opposite.” — Khara Jabola-Carolus

She has turned down job offers as a warehouse worker and a security guard because they didn’t work for her schedule or give her enough money to pay for child care and basic necessities.

“I just have to keep pushing forward right now and pray and hope that the schools open,” she said. “Although there is a pandemic going on it’s kind of necessary for me and my situation for them to open up so that my children are able to attend school so that I’m able to provide.”

Hernandez appreciates that she has subsidized housing through a domestic violence shelter and access to government cash programs but often lays awake with anxiety.

“Right now I’m relying on government assistance and it’s something I’ve never done. I’ve always had one or two jobs,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat up at night, thinking of plan A, plan B and plan C.”

Ren Woods with her daughter Elsa Rye Schubert, age 9. Photo: Tim Wright
Ren Woods and her daughter are looking for a place to stay after March, which is particularly hard because Woods is still unemployed. Tim Wright/Civil Beat

Woods in Hilo is in a similar position. She needs to find a place to stay for herself and her 9-year-old daughter by March but is still on unpaid leave from her job as an executive assistant, which paid $15 per hour.

She hasn’t been able to find a different job because she needs the flexibility to help her daughter with remote learning.

Woods has exhausted her unemployment benefits and thinks without a job, “I imagine a property manager would just laugh me out of their office,” she said.

She thinks she might have to move to a part of the island where she feels unsafe to find more affordable housing.

“As a single mom with a growing daughter, that really weighs on me a lot: choosing a home to live in that I’m aware is not safe, or finding a better job that allows for a better income but then I’m not available for my daughter,” she said. “It’s a really hard choice.”

Policy Interventions

During the first few months of the pandemic, Jabola-Carolus from the Hawaii Commission on the Status of Women released a feminist economic recovery plan as well as a survey of more than 50 single mothers, the vast majority of whom reported challenges balancing work and child care.

She said her office has received many calls from single mothers who have struggled with everything from not being able to bring their children along to doctor’s appointments due to pandemic restrictions to not having access to digital devices necessary for remote schooling.

Jabola-Carolus plans to back a measure during the legislative session that begins on Jan. 20 to block landlords from denying tenants who rely on government assistance like the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8.

“Voucher discrimination is really serving as a proxy for discrimination against women,” she said, noting that 83% of Section 8 households nationally are women-led.

Jabola-Carolus also expects the Legislature to take up a bill this year to allow state employees to telework while caregiving.

“We can’t rely on the benevolence of executive directors and CEOs. We need the state to protect this entire group of people,” she said. “What I’ve seen is just heartless during COVID.”

Kathleen Algire of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network said she supports the telework proposal and hopes the Legislature maintains state funding for child care services.

“Child care is the backbone to our economy. There will be no recovery without it,” she said. “There’s a lot of community good that comes out of it when it gives half your workforce the ability to work. Now’s the time to do it.”

Algire also plans to back a bill to give employees in the private sector access to 56 hours of paid sick leave.

Jabola-Carolus said Hawaii government and business reactions to COVID-19 reflect a broader systemic failure to support single mothers.

“All this talk about ‘ohana strong’ and ‘aloha for the family,’ those values are not playing out,” Jabola-Carolus said. “I do not see those supposed values that Hawaii bases its exceptionalism on playing out.”

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