On the day Jackie Tolbert drove to Jefferson State Community College to see about enrolling in a pharmacy technician certification program, she had already worked from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. dispatching calls for a courier service before returning home to drive her tween daughter, Amya, to school.

The schedule afforded her as little as two hours of sleep each night, and “this particular day, I really drug myself out of bed,” she said.

Her previous efforts to secure financial aid for the program were unsuccessful. She had saved $400, enough to cover an initial payment that would allow her to start classes. She didn’t know how she would come up with about $800 more, but she knew the certification was a step toward becoming a pharmacist, an ambition she has held since she was a girl.

Tolbert said she was explaining her financial situation in an office at the college when “another lady overheard me and she said, ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’ve just got one question for you.’ I was like, ‘Yes ma’am?’ And she was like, ‘Are you a single mother?’”

Jeff State connected her to an initiative sponsored by The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, a nonprofit that works to lift women through partnerships, grants and advocacy. A scholarship provided Tolbert with tuition and supplies. She aced the 60-hour program, obtained her certification and was able to choose between two job offers. She landed a full-time position as a pharmacy inventory specialist at a CVS in Hoover, where she works stable hours Monday through Friday and has opportunities to increase her pay.

“I just love doing what I do. I love my job,” said Tolbert, 33, who plans to continue her education until she can enroll at Samford University’s McWhorter School of Pharmacy.

For low-income single mothers in Birmingham, getting ahead often means walking a tightrope between work and family responsibilities, a balancing act where routine concerns such as a sick child are enough to threaten livelihoods. The Women’s Fund recently completed research that details those challenges, compiled in a new report titled “Clearing the Path: Removing Barriers to Sustainable Employment for Working Single Mothers.” The agency commissioned phone interviews with single mothers in Jefferson, Shelby, Walker, Blount, and St. Clair counties and received 200 completed surveys covering their income, employment, and child care status.

The results are sobering. While 62 percent of survey respondents said they work 40 hours or more per week, 66 percent reported earning income below the federal poverty threshold. That’s just $16,020 per year for a single mother and one child, or $20,160 for a single mother with two children. A full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would not rise above that mark.

A Portrait of Working Life

The Women’s Fund knew that education is key to pulling women out of poverty, and has focused on helping to provide training and workforce readiness skills. They wanted to better understand the gap between career training and earning a living wage. The research targeted women who worked for the area’s largest employers, including Brookwood Baptist Health, Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, Regions Bank, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The report is the culmination of a yearlong effort, including about nine months to compile the data.

“We really wanted to hear from those women, some who are working two jobs: What are your challenges?” said Jeanne L. Jackson, president and CEO of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. “We needed to have the research first. And we needed to hear from these women who are facing these issues. They’re not going to tell their employer because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”

What they heard was that single mothers earn low wages and struggle to pay their bills. Finding affordable, quality child care is a challenge. They often have inflexible employers and irregular work schedules. Working extra hours means even more time away from their children. A higher income can mean ineligibility for benefits they would otherwise receive. And the collective instability can feed a cycle of poverty.

“What we’re interested in now is, what are the workplace policies of the top 15 companies around?” Jackson said. “There is a demand for a skilled workforce. If companies are looking for a skilled workforce, and looking to increase women in the workforce, are they thinking about these issues?”

Child Care at Issue

A refrain in the report is the struggle to find and keep quality, affordable child care. The challenge dovetails with inflexible employment; more than half of survey respondents said they lost a job because they took time off to care for their children. The lower their income, the more likely they were to lose their job for that reason.

Single mothers in the Birmingham area are faced with the highest child care costs in the state. Meanwhile, state child care subsidies are dwindling as the cost of child care rises higher in this area. Requests for financial assistance have pressured agencies such as Childcare Resources, a Birmingham nonprofit that trains child care providers and provides direct financial aid to working mothers who may not qualify for state aid. To receive assistance, a family must meet employment and income eligibility requirements.

“The demand is great,” said Joan Wright, the agency’s executive director. “We literally have women coming to our office every single day wanting to fill out an application.”

The agency was forced to suspend taking in new applications in 2014 after their waiting list grew to more than 400 people. Thanks to support from partners such as The Women’s Fund, which recently awarded Childcare Resources a $25,000 grant, the agency is on more stable footing, Wright said.

Tolbert said Childcare Resources assisted her when Amya was younger.

“When Childcare Resources came through, I was able to get a job,” she said. “It was a big help.”

The cost of child care is only one consideration. Alabama is one of seven states that allows facilities affiliated with a church or nonprofit religious school to operate without a license. In fact, nearly half of all facilities for young children in the state are unlicensed, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.

That means they are not required to conduct criminal background checks, maintain standard staff-to-child ratios and mandate educational and training levels for teachers. Unlicensed facilities can be cheaper, or even the only options available. According to Childcare Resources, just 26 of 646 centers in Blount, Jefferson, Shelby, and Walker counties are accredited. Single mothers are often faced with a difficult choice.

“There are a lot of child care options” in Greater Birmingham, Wright said, “but there aren’t always quality options. That makes it more difficult for these mothers to feel good about where they’re leaving their child, because they’re having to settle for what they can afford.”

That may be changing. A new bill in the Alabama legislature called The Child Care Safety Act would require all child care facilities to be accredited while allowing faith-based facilities to continue using the same curriculums. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Pebblin W. Warren, D-Tuskegee, and Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, has attracted bipartisan support and is in the early procedural stages in the state House of Representatives.

‘Clearing the Path’

As The Women’s Fund turns its focus toward family-friendly workplace policies, the report issues recommendations for employers based on the research: flexibility when children are sick or out of school; onsite or offsite day care; “family sick days”; traditional hours aligned with day care operating hours; and improved wages.

While those offerings would come at a cost to companies, the benefits include reduced absenteeism and turnover, and increased productivity.

“What we are really hoping this report does is cause the conversation,” Jackson said, “that corporations and government and local government are really looking at their policies and saying, if we want Birmingham to grow, if we want Birmingham to have skilled workers, if we want to be on the cutting edge of high-skilled labor, we need to look at policies that are more friendly toward women and children and families.”

Tolbert said she is grateful to The Women’s Fund for giving her a hand up.

“I try to be my own motivator,” she said. “I always looked at it like, everybody can do what you want to do. You can push yourself to do a lot of things. Be thankful for what you’ve got and what you might could have if you just work for it. So I’m thankful for what I’ve got.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2-9, 2017 issue of Weld.

You can read the Clearing the Path report here.

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