Women were hit hardest when the Covid-19 pandemic started taking its terrible toll on the job market. Last month there were promising gains for women in the workforce but it’s still too early to declare the end of the “shecession”.
The pandemic’s arrival hit the women-dominated leisure, hospitality and retail industries first and hardest as the nation went into lockdown. As job losses hit record highs the US recorded another sorry first – the first recession in which women lost the most jobs.
Now as vaccination rates soar and states continue to reopen, hiring is rebounding. In March, 495,000 women entered the labor force, by either looking for work or getting work that month. In February, only 26,000 women had entered the labor force.
But these promising top-line figures betray the harsher economic situation for Black women, as well as the specific hurdles women face in getting back to the work, including lack of childcare.
Many women have simply dropped out of the labor force altogether. Women’s labor force participation – the percentage of women in or looking for work – had not been as low as it was in March (57.4%) since December 1988, according to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
“One of the things we’re worried about is that because 1.8 million women have left the workforce entirely, that means if and when they do return, they are likely to have lower wages than they would have if they never left,” Emily Martin, vice-president of education and workplace justice at the NWLC, told the Guardian.
Black women in particular are experiencing higher levels of unemployment and are overrepresented among those who have left the workforce entirely.
Black women’s unemployment rate was 8.7% in March, compared with 5.3% in March 2020. For women overall, the unemployment rate in March was 5.7%.
“When you do get a job again after that long spell out of work it’s likely to show up in lower wages for potentially years to come,” Martin said. “We’re concerned that we’ll see this in race and gender wage gaps.”
Women are also losing out as retail, hospitality and leisure start to regain jobs.
There were 22,500 more jobs in retail last month, but women only accounted for 2.2% of the gains, according to a NWLC analysis. Since February 2020, women have lost 94.9% of the net jobs lost in retail, meaning women currently hold 48.4% of jobs in the sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s not just that sectors where women are overrepresented are sectors where we’ve seen a lot of job loss, but women have been especially likely to lose jobs in those sectors,” Martin said.
In some industries where Black women are well or overrepresented, such as social services and healthcare, there were small to no job gains. The childcare sector gained only 2,100 jobs last month – leaving the industry still short nearly one in six jobs since the pandemic began.
A John Jay college economist, Michelle Holder, said: “The recovery for some groups is going to be a lot slower … and the recovery may not be as complete as for Black workers as it will be for white workers.”
Karen Ellenwood, who is African American, has been looking for stable work in Ohio since losing her part-time job at a church at the beginning of the pandemic. She’s had a few temporary opportunities, such as working at a tax preparation firm during tax season, but she is still looking for a job that she could stick with for years to come.
She is retired from a government job, so she depends on a $1,600 monthly retirement check to pay for rent, bills and basic expenses. “It’s not a lot that I need but it would be nice to have some money left after everything’s taken care of,” Ellenwood, 61, said.
She has been collecting unemployment benefits when out of work, but the payments have been inconsistent and nobody at the unemployment office has been able to explain to her why one week she receives $89 and another week she receives $369.
“I don’t feel like Congress, whoever is making these decisions, this hasn’t affected them in the way it has me,” Ellenwood said. “Because they are still drawing a weekly paycheck, they still have weekly meetings, their life is pretty much normal – it hasn’t changed like mine has changed.”
Congress is already divided about president Joe Biden’s plans to address one major hurdle for getting back to work: caregiving responsibilities. Three in 10 women said they quit their job because their child’s school or daycare was closed, according to a survey published in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Last week, the Biden administration announced the release of $39bn from the most recent stimulus package to help childcare providers. Biden has also included $400bn for senior care in his latest infrastructure plan.
John Jay’s Holder said that while the infrastructure plan had many laudable elements, it “misses the mark” in addressing women, particularly women of color’s, job losses in the pandemic.
“A lot of the jobs that are projected to be created under the plan, certainly in the realm of transportation infrastructure, are going to go to predominantly men, primarily white men,” Holder said. “I think this jobs plan was really a prime opportunity to attempt to address the differences of the pandemic’s impact on the labor market by gender, race and ethnicity, and I think that opportunity was missed.”