Jeraldine McMillan had worked for an insurance company for 28 years when laid off in 2013.
The quality control auditor had no luck finding a new job.
“People tend to overlook people over the age of 50 and what they bring to the table,” said McMillan, 61, of Archer.
She was out of work for three years until getting a job in the financial aid office at Santa Fe College. But her struggle to rejoin the workforce is shared by many women in Florida.
According to The Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the state is ranked 48th out of 51, including the District of Colombia, in women’s labor force participation, at 53.7 percent.
The study, published in March and using data from 2016, also found that Alachua County, at 56.4 percent, ranked 12th among the state’s 67 counties. However, the county ranks favorably when compared to women’s labor force participation in Levy and Marion Counties, which are at 46.7 and 43.3 percent, respectively. Levy ranks 47th in the state, and Marion is 58th.
Elyse Shaw, a senior research associate for the institute, said the data includes the percent of women aged 16 and older who are employed full-time, part-time voluntarily or part-time involuntarily, and those unemployed but looking for work.
Since the last study was done in 2004, Florida has decreased 2 percent.
“There’s just a lot of different factors, and a lot of it has to do with the economic trends in the state and economic trends in the country,” Shaw said.
Tiffany Vause, director of communications and external affairs for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), said the study does not account for factors that may keep someone out of the labor force, such as retirement. Vause said it would be better to look at unemployment rates, which are calculated from the population looking for work.
The unemployment rate for women in Florida was 4.5 percent in 2017, she said. The state had the lowest unemployment rate among the 10 most populous states in May, at 3.8 percent.
“These are important numbers that provide an accurate picture of how our economy is flourishing,” Vause said.
Two programs at Santa Fe in Gainesville are dedicated to putting women into the workforce: Back to Work 50+ and Focus on the Future.
Back to Work 50+ began four years ago helping women ages 50 to 64 reenter the workforce. It offers a series of workshops that focus on skills such as technology, interviewing and resume building, project coordinator Carolyn Das said.
The demographic that had the hardest time finding a new job after the Great Recession hit in 2008 was women over 50, Das said.
“If you don’t know where to go or where to start, what do you do?” she asked.
The competition is fierce in Gainesville since it is a college town, Das said. However, more employers are recognizing the importance of having a diverse group of employees.
Back to Work 50+ is connecting older women to those who want experienced workers, she said.
McMillan credits the program for helping her to reenter the workforce.
“It just gave me the right path,” she said.
Much like Back to Work 50+, Focus on the Future offers classes to improve employment, technological and life management skills. It focuses on helping displaced homemakers.
Focus on the Future Coordinator JoAnn Wilkes said a displaced homemaker is someone, typically a woman, who has spent his or her life taking care of family members, but now has to find a job due to circumstances such as divorce or death.
“The reality is there’s no place else for women to go,” she said.
Wilkes, who was a displaced homemaker herself, said the state will likely continue to see declining numbers in women’s labor force participation, because the Displaced Homemaker Program Trust Fund was eliminated in July 2017.
There were about 26 programs to help displaced homemakers across the state before cuts were made, she said. Focus on the Future remains open because Santa Fe started funding it.
Wilkes said giving women the skills needed to enter the labor force is rewarding, although the issues of gender bias and age discrimination may never be fixed.
Focus on the Future graduate Liz Pineda doesn’t know where she would be without the program.
Pineda realized she needed to become independent while going through a rough patch with her husband, on whom she was financially dependent. She tried finding a job for about five years before turning to Focus on the Future. It was a horrible feeling to be denied repeatedly, she said.
“I don’t ever want to feel that again – and I don’t want any other woman to feel that again,” Pineda said.