Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a solemn report: between November and December of 2020, the U.S. lost over 140,000 jobs (U.S Department of Labor). Many of these jobs had been held by women, who have been pushed out of the workforce in startling numbers. Since February 2020, women have lost 5.4 million jobs (Fortune). They are leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men (NPR). “Even in more stable times, jobs typically held by women were among the lowest-status and worst-paid work,” explains Diane Coyle, a professor of public policy (NY Times). For example, women account for about three-quarters of workers in education and a majority of those in food services (sectors that have been hit hard by the pandemic).
Additionally, between schools shutting down and a lack of childcare, many working mothers have no choice but to stay home for their kids. Sometimes the decision comes down to finances: because women still earn 82 cents for every dollar a man makes and typically earn less, it might seem to make more sense for a male partner to keep his job (NPR). But even when that’s not the case, our society often perpetuates the harmful notion that women are best suited for caregiving duties and should sacrifice their careers for their kids.
• Contact your local legislators to push for tangible changes in employment laws that support women of color.
While it is important to note that women in general have disproportionately left the workforce during the pandemic, the news reports that overlook the intersections between race and gender are missing a pivotal point: that women of color have been significantly affected (NY Times).
Over the last year, employment has been down nearly 7% for Hispanic women, 5.6% for Black women, and 3% for white women (Reuters). By August, only 34% of Black women who’d lost their jobs due to the pandemic regained employment, compared to 61% of white women (Catalyst).
There is a multitude of factors that contribute to these job losses. Systematic racism often prevents women of color from securing the same opportunities as their white counterparts; thus, white women are more likely to hold jobs that offer the flexibility to work from home (Eater). Overall, only 19.7% of Black workers and 16.4% of Hispanic workers can telework, compared to 29.9% of white workers (Economic Policy Institute).
Women of color also disproportionately hold jobs considered essential and most vulnerable to the pandemic, accounting for 53% of workers in the food service industry and 80% of workers in the health and social assistance field (Center for American Progress). When it comes to firing, women of color are often the ones at the top of companies’ layoff lists; they tend to hold the most marginal, low-authority roles, therefore losing their jobs at excessively high rates (Harvard Business Review).
Women of color also were disproportionately excluded from the benefits of last year’s federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which exempted many essential workers in grocery and retail environments (Washington Post). Employers were also allowed to exclude health care providers, and emergency responders from the act’s mandated paid sick days and child care leave. The U.S. Department of Labor defines “health care workers” so vaguely that it can include anyone employed in a healthcare facility, from cafeteria workers to maintenance staff and janitors. (Center for American Progress). Workers of color are overrepresented in these industries that offered little government support; Black employees comprise one-sixth of frontline workers (Axios). Given the lack of support, many women of color were forced to quit their jobs. In December 2020, the FFCRA ended, severing a crucial lifeline to those few able to receive benefits (U.S. Department of Labor).
However, Biden proposed a new coronavirus bill that includes a $1,400 stimulus check, one that he hopes can now go to eligible adult dependents and families with mixed-status citizenship (CNET). Biden also plans to extend the child tax credit to families with lower incomes. If approved, families will be able to claim up to $3,600 per young child and $3,000 per older child every year (USA Today). The bill will also add a temporary expansion of the childcare tax credit and expand access to childcare (Vox).
But while measures may temporarily ease some of the burdens on BIPOC women and mothers, they do not fully address the structural inequities that are the foundation of such job loss disparities. Even before coronavirus, people of color were far more likely to receive poverty-level wages than white workers; in 2017, 19.2% of Hispanic workers and 14.3% of Black workers were paid poverty-level wages, compared to 8.6% of white employees (Economic Policy Institute).
Based on all these statistics, it’s easy to see why women of color have suffered the most job loss during this time. The pandemic has erased years of gradual economic progress, and the effects are still going to be felt even after it is over. While Biden’s new coronavirus bill provides a brief glimmer of hope, America needs more direct, long-term policies to give these women ongoing support. Paid sick and family leave are crucial, and new measures should be taken to provide low-income workers with full-wage replacement no matter how big or small the business is. Our country is in a crisis, and women of color need to be at the forefront of our most important conversations. To see change for those most in need, we must demand it now.
The U.S. has failed at providing adequate paid family leave for distressed Americans, leaving millions of essential BIPOC workers without support.
Women of color disproportionately hold low-paying essential jobs (accounting for 53% of workers in the food service industry and 80% of workers in the health and social assistance field), therefore being ineligible for benefits and more susceptible to layoffs (Center for American Progress).
During the pandemic, employment has decreased nearly 7% for Hispanic women, 5.6% for Black women, and 3% for white women (Reuters).