Heather Ashby, founder and CEO of CoworkHERS in Portland, said her business has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic because its women members have been forced to choose between child care and work. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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Heather Ashby opened her Congress Street coworking space, CoworkHERS, nearly three years ago and gradually made her vision of building a supportive, inclusive workspace for women a reality. 

But as the U.S. entered the sixth month of the coronavirus pandemic, Ashby, who had two children at home, experienced the fallout as both the owner of a small business and a working mother.

With her children home from school and a husband who also works full-time, she had to execute a balancing act many working parents are familiar with in the era of COVID-19.

“I literally have not gone back to work since March 15,” Ashby said. “I’ve been running my business with apps and occasionally checking the mail and the trash.”

A study completed in June by the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic and Social Research found the consequences of the pandemic – job loss, additional child-care duties, and mental distress – have hit women hardest, especially working mothers. According to the study, a third of working mothers in two-parent households reported they were the only ones providing care for their children, compared to 1/10th of working fathers.

CoworkHERS is at 411 Congress St. Portland City Hall is on the next block. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

CoworkHERS opened at 411 Congress St., near City Hall, in December 2017 with a mission to support female professionals in ways traditional offices may not. Before the pandemic hit in March, it was regularly hosting social and networking events for its members and offered perks such as in-house exercise classes and massage.

After temporarily closing early in the pandemic, CoworkHERs reopened July 1 with extra accommodations for social distancing and sanitization. Now the space provides air purifiers, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and each desk has a Plexiglas shield. 

Since the re-opening, however, Ashby said only about five members have been coming in routinely to use the space. 

While catering to women is what the CoworkHERS brand is all about, she said she thinks it has slowed her business’ comeback compared with other coworking spaces in the area.

“I do think being focused on women only kind of hurts me in a way with the shutdowns because they are cooped up with their children more often than their husbands are,” Ashby said. “They can’t go to work, they’re forced to find a way to work from home.”

She made the decision early in the pandemic to reduce all members’ subscription rates to $10 per month, which helped keep the business open. Even so, CoworkHERS has lost nearly a quarter of its members since the pandemic took hold.

At the beginning of March, Ashby had 89 members; she now has 66. But she has noticed a recent uptick of people purchasing day passes to use the space, and also had a man sign up.

Other coworking spaces in the area have also lost significant numbers of members in recent months.

Workspaces at CoworkHERS now are separated by Plexiglas shields and equipped with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

James LaPlante, CEO and creative director of SoPo Co.Works in South Portland, said his space lost more than half of its members in the first two months of the pandemic. Although he has seen more interest in coworking spaces recently as people want to “get out of their houses and find a more productive environment,” he said, membership is still down compared to last winter.

LaPlante said SoPo Co.Works is one of the smallest coworking spaces in the area, and before COVID-19 had 46 members. Today, the space is down to 18.

“Right now we are slowly adding new members, but I fear that in the fall and winter the pandemic may be worse and force us to shut down again,” LaPlante said in an email. “And it will be much harder for our members to survive a longer shutdown come wintertime.”

Similarly, Liz Trice, founder and CEO of PelotonLabs in Portland, said her coworking space membership has fallen by about a third.

“We have both women and men with children in about equal numbers, some with child care, some not,” Trice said. “Both need to get out of the house to focus on work.”

Like many others, Ashby spent the first months of the pandemic trying to work from home, create a reopening strategy, and monitor her children’s remote learning, which proved especially difficult. 

She is now planning to create an “educational pod” at CoworkHERS to allow members to work as their children get assistance with remote learning. 

Coworking membership has declined by about a third at PelotonLabs in Portland, according to founder and CEO Liz Trice. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

As her own children return to school part-time this month, Ashby is also determined to offer additional support to CoworkHERS members who have younger children. She is in the process of renovating a space on the third floor to offer child care.

“Especially for nursing moms and babies, it’s much easier for them and cheaper for them to share a child-care space in the coworking (office),” she said. “(It’s easier) to be able to work and then breastfeed and go back to work and not have to put them into day care.”

Offering child care and breastfeeding support was part of a grant proposal she wrote to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development last year. In December 2019, CoworkHERS and 15 other coworking spaces in southern Maine received state funding to expand their spaces.

When it is complete, the CoworkHERS child-care area will likely only be able to accommodate six children, but Ashby said with the hybrid model most local schools are adopting for the fall semester, she hopes to rotate the groups of children that use it each day of the week. Her plan is to have another woman lease the space from her and run the day-care service.

Carla Tracy, a long time CoworkHERS member who runs her own public relations business, said she has no plans to cancel her membership despite also facing the same parenting and business balancing act that Ashby faces.

When COVID-19 hit Maine she pivoted from her usual work of promoting local food, beverage, and hospitality businesses to doing pro-bono crisis communications for the industry. Since she and her husband are both business owners, they were able to split child-care responsibilities during the day.

But she still felt the pressure of the situation.

Heather Ashby, outside CoworkHERS on Congress Street with daughter Layla. Ashby said she plans to add child-care service at the business, to help meet the needs of working moms. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

“I did have a chunk of time dedicated (to work), but we’re all in the same house, we’re all home, and how I felt was I couldn’t give 100 percent of my brain to anything,” Tracy said. “It was this real challenge of not forgetting anybody, not dropping the ball, not being able to see people face-to-face.” 

Before the pandemic, Tracy especially enjoyed the community of women at CoworkHERS, which she said Ashby worked to build through features like posting photos and biographies on the wall to explain where every member worked. 

Ashby is also mourning the sense of community she built at CoworkHERS, which she saw as “a sisterhood to lean on each other in hard times and good times.” Several members have sought her support as they have had babies, gone through divorces, and experienced personal tragedies like miscarriages, she said. 

She also misses having regular get-togethers like happy hours and group lunches, which have become too difficult now because of social distancing and child-care responsibilities.

“We all got so, so close before this happened,” Ashby said. “It really broke my heart more than anything. We’ve taken years to build this community of closeness.” 

Despite the changes, Tracy said she is resolved to keep her private office at CoworkHERS, and has felt that way since the beginning of the pandemic, even as she was cutting other expenses.

“The last thing I would do is give up this space,” Tracy said. “The space is mine. My husband doesn’t come in, my kids don’t really come in, although they have. It’s sort of a space that you can make your own and I feel like I’ve got this special thing on the side.”