Adapting Roles: Part 5

By Emily Blobaum, contributor & Emily Barske, associate editor

Editor’s note: This story, focused on financial well-being, is part five and the final piece in the “Adapting Roles” series looking at family and gender issues amid the pandemic. Topics for the series were selected based on a survey conducted by the Business Record about the most challenging work-life balance issues due to coronavirus. 

More than 353,000 Iowans have filed initial unemployment claims since mid-March when many of the state’s retail and other businesses were ordered closed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, state data shows. Others have faced salary cuts or reduced hours. For women and people of color who already face pay disparity when compared with white male workers, financial challenges are even more prevalent across the country. 

David Steenson, founder of the Changing Point Counseling Center, said during a panel discussion as part of this series that the pandemic has changed many families’ economic situation. The breadwinner may have typically worked more hours and taken less responsibility at home, but now that they’re laid off those roles may change, he said. 

“Sometimes our assumptions are challenged and the balances that we relied on are off,” Steenson said. “Learning how to adjust and adapt is part of what helps us be resilient through life – because there is no linear way through life. So it ends up being learning how we adapt, … letting go of our assumptions and taking each step toward where we want to go in the future.”

The pandemic has also made leaders and employees more vulnerable, said Courtney Reyes, executive director of One Iowa. While that may have been viewed as a weakness in the past, it can be a real strength now, she said.  

“I always have embraced that … this is who I am,” Reyes said. “You’re going to get me at my messy human level. That allows me to connect to my team and to my community. And I think that’s what we need in leadership right now — how do we connect that this is really hard for everyone? 

“And as we transition back, being really aware that everyone doesn’t have the same privileges, you don’t have the same socioeconomic status, your home life doesn’t look exactly the same. So the more open you can talk about the challenges that you’re facing, you’re going to open that door for folks to maybe be more open and honest. Because I think a lot of people live in fear and keep a lot of things hidden at home.” 

The pandemic may also mean fewer career advancement opportunities for women, said Tiffany O’Donnell, CEO of Women Lead Change. She said that working at home has meant women may not be as visible as when they could walk by their boss’s office and they are less likely than men to tout the good work they’ve been doing. 

“We really need to be intentional about the work that we’re doing and sharing what we’re doing each week,” O’Donnell said. “That can be sometimes uncomfortable for us – that whole ‘Iowa nice’ and we don’t want to brag about ourselves. Find a way to share the work that you’re doing. … This is a time when you really need to over-communicate what you’re doing.” 

Denise Oles-Acevedo, an associate teaching professor at Iowa State University specializing in gender issues, said bringing more attention to equity in the home during the pandemic could lead to more equity in the workforce. Closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35%, one study shows. 

“I think if we can try to bring that awareness to young people earlier, and start encouraging more splitting of the chores around the house, that will hopefully translate into the workforce,” Oles-Acevedo said. “More of that ‘Oh, OK, Mom can run the house. So maybe she can run the company too.’ And I also think when we get more and more women in roles of leadership, then there’s someone who says, ‘Oh, she did it, I can do it.’ ”

Child care costs, and the unequal share of caregiving that falls on women, have been exasperated by the pandemic with access to facilities or nannies cutoff, O’Donnell said. 

“I think that we all have to be very aware of the privilege that we have [if] we do get to stay at home,” Reyes said. “Imagine if you were working two jobs and … putting yourself at risk to make sure that the world keeps going. And then you’re underpaid and your access to health care isn’t there. It’s definitely something that our country is missing. And I think that this pandemic has only highlighted the inequalities in our country.”

Watch the panel

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Kate Garner works at the Des Moines Radio Group as the news director and special projects director. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

By title that I share publicly, I am news director and special projects director for the Des Moines Radio Group, but I have about 20 other titles. I do a couple of air shifts a day. Beyond that, I keep an eye on what’s going on in the community and try to keep people connected. Without the pandemic, I work about 45 hours, six days a week. Usually Saturdays are only a couple of hours. 

Because I was paying attention to the news, in late January, early February I saw that there was this thing coming out of China. By the beginning of March, I was adding a couple of hours in the evening reading extra stuff about this. On top of all my other responsibilities, I was writing a full-on news report every day and twice a day recording news updates that would run throughout the day. Once, I actually wrote 1 million words in a week. By March 12, that’s where it really kicked in and I started working 70 hours a week. (I worked 70 hours a week until the end of May.) My goal was to be out by 8 p.m. so that I only did a 12-hour day. There were days when so much was coming in so fast, I was still there for 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday. Now it’s continuing to be along the lines of 55 or 60 hours a week. 

Just because somebody seems — and I hate this word and nobody should ever use it as a description of a local TV, radio or newsperson — like a celebrity doesn’t mean that they’re making Brad Pitt money. None of us are. Local news people do it for the passion and because they care about our community. I do it because I want Des Moines and the surrounding area to be safe. I want people to be knowledgeable and I want the facts out there. 

I’m not an hourly worker. I make radio money. The average person in radio maybe makes a salary similar to someone who is a manager at QuikTrip, or even a little less. I mentor multiple kids a year and I have an intern that comes in every summer. I make it clear to them that you don’t get into radio for the money. 

Financially, it’s always been living paycheck to paycheck. It became even more so with the changes that happened. It was tight. 

My roommate is my cousin. We’ve lived together for 20 years. Most of the people that don’t know us think we’re a couple, and we just let that roll. We don’t care what people think about that. We own our house. Well, the bank owns the house but we like to pretend that we do.

We’ve both had times of unemployment and the other one has always just picked up the slack. We’ve lived hand-to-mouth and eaten very cheap rice and beans. This time around isn’t that hard because we’ve learned to do it better and plan for it. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. Money is hard to talk about, but it’s important to have those discussions. If crap hits the fan, what can we sacrifice? What should be cut? 

She was working one part-time job and another part-time job, the second part-time job being at Penzeys Spices. She quit the other job because she got hired by the U.S. Census Bureau to be the follow-up person that goes door to door. They were paying $20 an hour or something like that. Then the pandemic hit. Penzeys paid their employees for a few weeks and then they had to furlough. So here she is, unemployed. It’s great that the federal government kicked out an extra $600, but it’s still not a living wage. Luckily by her being unemployed, a lot of companies were making adjustments in payment schedules. But there were still bills that you had to pay. You don’t want to get too far behind. 

You make all the fiscal adjustments and you don’t go anywhere. You don’t eat out. We cut streaming services, a music service and I dropped a national newspaper subscription. The cats have got to eat, and one got sick in the middle of all of it so there was that extra expense. But because I had been paying attention to what was going on, I had very quietly been putting together a nice pantry at home with the expectation that a partial lockdown situation was likely. So we were fully stocked and prepared. But you still have to have fresh vegetables every once in a while. We put in a garden this year, knowing that there’s a possibility that there could be another spike in cases and businesses would shut down again. If that’s the case, we didn’t want to be where fresh vegetables were something we needed to debate on whether or not we could have. 

Our shower has been broken for eight months. The city had found something that was broken on our street. They repaired it and broke a pipe to our house. They repaired that and then turned the water back on. But they didn’t warn us, so everything in our 90-year-old house broke free with the additional water pressure and pushed all of the lime into the fixtures and had frozen them. We had to pay out-of-pocket to replace the hot water heater. But it only works in the basement. There’s no water in the shower. There’s enough water that comes out of the sink to wash your hands. The toilet flushes. We get cold water in the sink in the kitchen and the water works for the dishwasher. That’s it. We were already trying to save up to fix the shower, but then that money set aside for that is gone, because that little bit of savings had to go into the everyday survival fund. I’ve been washing my hair in a bucket. 

But I look back at people who have had to make real, long-term sacrifices. I think of the people that are out there living every day, dime-to-dime that they find on the street. I don’t like how little money I make, but I’m certainly not going to gripe because compared to other people, I’m doing OK. I’m not trying to feed three kids. I’m blessed. I try to keep it in perspective.