In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, one in three jobs held by women have been deemed “essential.” In fact, 72 percent of grocery store cashiers, 89 percent of home care workers, and 91 percent of nurses are women. Meanwhile, women have long performed caretaking duties at home disproportionately, whether for children or elderly parents. This domestic work has never been easy, and now with the closure of schools across the country, many women have added teaching to their long list of responsibilities.
Our country is relying more heavily than ever on the labor of women, which brings the chronic undervaluing of their work into more glaring light. It’s hard to reconcile the public reverence for our frontline workers with the persistent reality that women make 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, with black and Latinx women faring far worse than their white counterparts. Worse: We are relying on women on the frontlines — in the workplace and at home — to get us through this crisis, yet as the coronavirus has destabilized our economy, women are bearing the brunt of the fallout.
60 percent of people laid off because of the virus have been women. Black women are twice as likely as white men to have been laid off or furloughed because of the coronavirus. Given the cumulative effects of the gender wage gap, this leaves many families with little in the way of emergency savings to get through this difficult time. In 2016, the average black family had 10 cents to the dollar of the typical white family in terms of household wealth.
Many of the policymakers quick to tweet their gratitude for grocery store clerks, delivery people, and other low-wage service workers are the same politicians who have made careers of denying them a safety net. Benefits like paid family leave, paid sick leave and universal health care coverage could be the difference between a rough patch and a life-ruining event for many of these women. Yet, even when facing the debilitating consequences of the pandemic, 51 Republican senators voted against expanding paid sick leave to all American workers.
This crisis has brought us to a crossroads. If we aren’t vigilant, extremist politicians will exploit this emergency to push through their regressive agendas, which will only deepen the disparities among us. Already, right-wing lawmakers in six states have used the crisis to deny women abortions, effectively enacting the bans that they have been attempting to implement piecemeal for decades. Of course, abortion restrictions most hurt low-income women of color, who often cannot afford to lose wages and travel across state lines for these essential services.
But if we reckon with our country’s past failures, if we recognize the urgent demands of this moment, we can adopt policies that truly reflect the reverence and respect we claim to feel for our frontline workers.
Consider the restorative power of permanent paid family and medical leave for all workers, equal pay for equal work, a functional and just healthcare system, and a stronger safety net. We need to make these changes not only to support workers through this pandemic, but also to permanently level the playing field and address the systemic inequities produced by racism, sexism, classism, and so many other prejudices holding back our society.
Our women working on the frontlines are risking their lives to keep the rest of us safe and healthy. The least we can do is show these brave people our gratitude in a way that actually counts: by preserving — and advancing — their basic right to a healthy and prosperous life.
Dana Singiser is a Democratic strategist and health care expert. She was a key member of the Obama White House’s ACA team and was a senior vice president at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.