The first unemployment wave in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women.
Over 700,000 people lost their jobs in March and nearly 60% of them were women, according to a report released by the United States Labor Department on April 3.
Economists say, as more than 10 million people are now jobless and unemployment rates are anticipated to increase in April, the downturn will continue to impact the most vulnerable workers, who tend to be women of color.
Women are over-represented in the hospitality, child care, leisure, and retail industries, which are currently experiencing the biggest losses, according to Kate Bahn, economist and director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
Restaurants, bars, hotels, and shops were the first businesses to feel the impact of Americans staying home to practice social distancing in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus. Other sectors like education, government, and health care — that also tend to be dominated by women — are expected to experience losses as budgets get cut too.
"Women of color are facing the starkest losses because there's a perfect storm — they're already in low-paid jobs that are at risk for job loss right now, or they've already lost their jobs," Bahn told Global Citizen. "They had less access to the types of benefits that help them manage care responsibilities and build up a safety net."
New CEPR analysis shows that specific frontline industries have a high proportion of workers of color or immigrants, without insurance, or living in low-income families. @hj_rho@hayleycbbrown@ShawnFremstadhttps://t.co/vX3wpQB1B9pic.twitter.com/Xmla9qyiPY— CEPR (@ceprdc) April 8, 2020
The current economic situation is unlike the last recession the US experienced in 2008 and 2009, which hit male-dominated industries like finance and construction first. Finance jobs have higher incomes and manufacturing jobs tend to be unionized, but the industries experiencing a downturn now do not offer the same protections, Bahn said.
The lack of an adequate policy system that provides paid sick leave, family medical leave, and flexible work schedules to help women manage imbalanced unpaid labor, like caregiving and household responsibilities, exasperates their over-representation in low-wage jobs, she added.
Despite making progress towards achieving gender equality and narrowing pay gaps, globally, women remain less likely to participate in the labor market and more likely to be unemployed than men. The increase in unpaid work amid the COVID-19 pandemic only adds to the discrepancy, with children being required to stay home from school.
For women who remain employed, safety is a major issue as they are more likely to work on the frontlines of the pandemic in hospitals or grocery stores, Randy Albelda, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said. Immigrant women, who are undocumented and lack work protections, are especially at risk.
"It's sort of this double-edged sword," Albelda told Global Citizen. "You're more likely to be unemployed … or when you are employed, you're more likely to be vulnerable to the virus."
Albelda raised concerns about what will happen once the economy recovers.
"When this is over, are they [vulnerable workers] going to get better pay?" she said. "Once people are allowed to go back to work, I think those leisure and hospitality industries are still going to suffer."
What economists know from previous recessions is that the workers who face the biggest losses take a long time to pick themselves back up.
"Those workers who have steep losses, it could take them 10 years to make up those lost earnings," Bahn said. "It takes ... a very long time to get over a downturn if you're a vulnerable worker."
The recent drop in women’s employment is a stark contrast from January, when a report showed women outnumbered men in payroll jobs for only the second time in history.
As both parents or other members of the family are home during lockdowns, Bahn sees a chance to address the barriers that hold women back in the labor force.
"Maybe there's the opportunity for gender norms to shift a little bit, if men are able to pick up some of the caretaking responsibilities as they're increasing," she said.