America’s women workers have been living in a straw house perched high on a cliff, and COVID-19 is the perfect storm. Though research reveals that men are more likely to succumb to the virus, women will be disproportionately devastated by its economic impacts, and that’s especially true for women of color. Women have long held the most precarious jobs, made less money, and done the most paid and unpaid caregiving. The coronavirus exacerbates these inequalities, making female workers particularly vulnerable to economic disaster in the months and years to come.
We all cheer for the doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, warehouse workers, and others who are taking great risks to keep America safe, healthy, well-fed, and comfortable during the pandemic. Many of these super heroes are women, including three-quarters of health care workers and 66% of grocery cashiers. One in three women are doing jobs considered essential, and four in ten workers in frontline industries are people of color.
Less visible, however, are the legions of women who have lost their jobs in recent weeks. The last downturn in 2008 and 2009 knocked the male-dominated construction and manufacturing the hardest, but this time, women made up a full 60% of the first wave of layoffs, which hit the service, leisure, and retail industries particularly hard. Many worked for low wages, often for tips, as hotel housekeepers, waitresses, salon staff, child care workers, home health care aides, and in other service and caring jobs. These were not family-supporting, stable jobs, even before the current crisis. Will these businesses close for good, leaving many women workers out of a job permanently?
COVID-19 has hit gig workers especially hard, because they, not their employers, shoulder the bulk of the risk of those jobs. When a crisis hits, these companies have zero legal obligations to their workers, who have no security net. Though we often think of the “gig” economy as men driving Ubers, women make up over half those in “alternative work arrangements,” such as independent contractors and freelancers. A full fifth of such jobs are in health and education. Though the federal relief bill is supposed to provide unemployment benefits to the huge numbers of independent contractors who are out of work, many are having a hard time accessing these benefits through creaky and overwhelmed state unemployment systems.
Women earn less money than men, and so they have skimpier savings to fall back on in hard times. Women make only 82 cents on the dollar earned by men, a wage gap that that’s even wider for women of color. Black women earn just 62 cents for every dollar earned by men, and Latinas only 54 cents. This is true even for medical professionals: female doctors are paid 12 percent less than men, and women nurses earn 8 percent less. A life time of lower earnings means that women have a lower net worth than men, a gender wealth gap that creates real-time anguish when jobs and resources are scarce.
For women now working from home, the pandemic intensifies the gender inequities that shape their lives. Women have long shouldered more of the unpaid caregiving in the home while also doing more cooking and cleaning. Research reveals that women carry this burden of unpaid household work, no matter their age, race, or family income. With families hunkered down together, there’s now even more work for mother. In many homes, women are often the ones getting the family stocked up in the face of shortages, home schooling kids, and nursing sickness. That can have troubling consequences: if women have less time to devote to their paid jobs in the work-at-home era, they may lose out on promotions or other opportunities once everyone is finally back in the workplace.
Finally, the pandemic has fueled domestic violence. Hotlines are lighting up globally as women are locked down at home with their abusers, prompting the United Nations to issue an urgent call to protect women’s safety. It’s a crisis that won’t end when we all can finally leave our homes. Women who lose their jobs due to the epidemic and its aftermath may long be more economically dependent on abusive male partners.
Though it’s difficult to imagine now, we will soon begin to rebuild our economy. We can do so in a way that closes deep, structural gender and racial gaps and takes women out of the path of future storms. Let’s start by doing more than banging pots and pans for caregivers and service workers; let’s pay them fairly. Then let’s move toward guaranteed health care, sick days, secure retirement, and paid parental leave for all people, whether they have a traditional job or not. A universal safety net will go a long way to improving women’s lives. Afterall, curing the coronavirus won’t remedy the its larger harm on women workers unless we begin to treat the root causes of gender inequity.
Lane Windham, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor
Lane Windham is author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. She is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership).
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