Magali Botello had spent two years preparing for her daughter’s April 8 quinceañera, the celebration of her 15th birthday. Now, all plans are on hold. Her family can’t afford it.

Botello, 38, lost her job of 13 years cleaning houses in Boulder the second week of March 2020, and hasn’t been able to find another job. Even as COVID restrictions lift and kids go back to school, Botello’s customers aren’t ready to have her back in their homes.

Her husband’s work hours at a car repair shop were also reduced. They had to use nearly all the money they saved for their two kids’ college expenses to pay rent and bills. They aren’t eligible for unemployment, but they were able to receive one-time assistance through an organization she’s a part of.

“It’s really stressful. … It’s really bad,” Botello said of their financial situation. “I think it’s not only me. I heard from many people (that) the situation is really hard right now.”

Women in the U.S. and Colorado were unemployed during the pandemic at high rates — women of color and mothers in even higher numbers. The rate of women participating in the labor force in Colorado is 1.2 percentage points lower in February than it was in January 2020, compared with a 0.8 percentage point increase for men, according to a report by the nonpartisan Common Sense Institute.

Local economists say long-term problems for women in the workforce were exacerbated by the pandemic — accessibility to affordable child care; needing to stay home with children whose schools were closed; and concentration of women in service and hospitality industries that won’t recover as quickly.

Women’s advocacy groups worry if the right measures aren’t taken, decades of progress could be erased for women, which would affect the entire state.

“I do expect as schools reopen and child care centers reopen, we’ll see a rebound of women’s employment,” said Chloe East, assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver. “But I also think from what we know from the economic research, even short periods of time out of the labor force can have long-term consequences for women’s work and wages.”

The Denver Post heard from women across the state who shared their stories of layoffs, furloughs or being forced to quit their jobs because of challenges with child care or caregiving. Others said they left jobs because they felt unsafe during the pandemic, were immunocompromised or felt like they were pushed out for advocating for safer workplaces.

Their experiences spanned industries: schools, hospitals, service, entertainment and tech sectors. Many agreed that in addition to their personal financial struggles, losing women in the workforce in Colorado leads to a significant loss in perspective.

“I think it keeps us stuck in the same old ways,” said Jessica Kelleher, a single mother of 15-month-old twins, who was laid off from her job at the end of last year. “One thing that I’ve learned as a mother is just the insane amount of focus and creativity and efficiency that mothers, single mothers, mothers in the workforce have.”

If workplaces lose that, she added, they won’t grow, evolve or innovate, and the environment becomes stale and uncompetitive.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Jessica Kelleher, 44, helps her 15-month-old twin children Alden, left, and Quinlyn during dinner at their home in Denver on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Colorado’s labor market stats

Colorado is lagging behind other states in its unemployment rate recovery at 6.6% vs. 6.2% nationally. Prior to the pandemic, Colorado’s rate was below the national average.

But to understand the full picture of how many Colorado women have been affected, analysts need to look beyond the unemployment rate, CU Denver Economics professor Laura Argys said. The rate of unemployment may have started to drop, but that’s because some people who were previously unemployed have dropped out of the workforce entirely.

“One of the differences between men and women in a recession is what occupations they’re in or what industries they’re in and how the recession is affecting those things,” Argys said. “Many recessions hit male employment pretty hard.”

Shutdowns in the retail, hospitality and service industries, in which women and people of color tend to work, created much of that burden. The restaurant and hospitality sectors got rid of 41,000 jobs in November and December alone.

Although state analysts forecast that the total number of jobs in Colorado will reach pre-pandemic levels by 2022, February’s growth was slower. If that rate continues, it’ll take until 2024 to reach that mark, according to the Common Sense Institute.

Had January 2020 growth continued, Colorado would have 27,000 more women in the labor force, Common Sense Institute president and CEO Kristin Strohm said.

“Our jobs have not recovered at the same rate as other states across the nation and we’re seeing a disproportionate impact, especially on moms here,” Strohm said. In February, Colorado ranked 28th among states in terms of current job levels year-over-year, according to a report released Thursday by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Mothers left the workforce at a higher rate than fathers, the Common Sense Institute report said, and women without college degrees were four times more likely to become unemployed than those with associate degrees or higher.

The pandemic also has affected women’s earning potential and set back long-term career trajectories, said Nicole Riehl, president and CEO of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children (EPIC).

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Magali Botello, 38, right, fixes son’s hair, Jan Aguirre Botello, 12, along with her daughter Michelle, 15, behind, at their home in Boulder on Friday, April 2, 2021.