Women suffering steeper job losses in COVID-19 economy

The economic devastation caused by the coronavirus has hit women particularly hard, a contrast to the 2009 downturn that was known as “the men’s recession.”

The latest employment figures show that women, by a 10-point margin, have seen the majority of the job losses as large parts of the economy have shut down.

The difference could have implications for the recovery and what policymakers need to do to ensure it’s not drawn out.

One primary reason that women are seeing higher unemployment rates is that the pandemic and the lockdowns have hit sectors of the economy that disproportionately employ women.

“This is a really atypical recession, in that we’ve proactively shut down major sectors of the economy and there’s a dropoff in demand that we’ve never seen before, both caused by the global health crisis,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Whereas the Great Recession that started in 2008 hit male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing first, the total lockdowns that characterized the past few months have been tougher on certain retail sectors.

For example, women represent 73 percent of employees in clothing stores, 71 percent in gift, novelty, souvenir stores and 75 percent of retail florists. In accommodation and food services, they have a slight edge at 53 percent employment representation, and also dominate beauty salons, nail salons and personal care services that social distancing has made prohibitive.

But Elise Gould, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said there’s more to the story.

“Even in the male-dominated industries, women are losing their jobs at greater rates,” she said.

For example, in February and March, women accounted for three-quarters of job losses in retail trade, even though they make up about half of the workforce. In professional and business services, where women account for just 46 percent of all employees, they lost 56 percent of the jobs.

“I think that has to do with the occupations within the sectors,” Gould said. Women, she notes, are generally less likely to be well-represented in middle- and high-level positions, so they may be the first to go when the crunch hits.

“Women have been less likely to be promoted into the positions that are more likely to be protected,” she added. 

More alarmingly, in some fields, women lost jobs even as male employment surged.

For example, in the category of transportation and warehouses, which covers anything from train conductors to Amazon fulfillment center workers, women account for 26 percent of workers, but count for a seemingly impossible 146 percent of job losses. That’s because the field added male employees (46 percent of the jobs) to replace the women.

The likely culprit in that case is the disproportionate degree to which women are responsible for child care in the United States.

“Schools are closed, and we know that women typically take on more house work, home work and child responsibilities in the home,” Gould noted.

The expanded unemployment insurance in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March made people who had to quit their jobs to take care of children eligible for benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Single-parent families, which are disproportionately headed by women, face tough choices between working and child care.

The effect on women is only amplified because the vast majority of child care businesses are run by women.

“In a sense it’s a double whammy in the sense that the people being paid to do the child care were women and then the women at home are more likely to stay home with the children, so now neither of these women have income,” said Akabas.

The trend could mean that the current downturn, already unprecedented in recent history, could have more lasting implications for children and child poverty.

“Broadly, this is concerning from the standpoint that we already knew there was an issue about women’s financial security relative to men’s,” Akabas said.

“If a lot of these women are bread-winners for the family, it could mean an increase in things like child poverty,” he added.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) highlighted the issue on Wednesday in a “Dear Colleague” letter, urging adoption of anti-hunger programs.

“The coronavirus has made this challenge worse, as millions of families struggle to put food on the table due to this unprecedented threat to their lives and livelihoods,” she wrote.

“Surveys show that 1 in 5 mothers of children under 12 say that their children are not getting enough food during the coronavirus crisis — three times the rate during the depths of the Great Recession,” she noted.

But experts say that what comes next could be just as important.

In the last recession, Gould notes, a lack of state and local funding over time led to major pullbacks in services, including downsizing in local education.

“The public sector funding is really important, and disproportionately affects women workers,” she said.

Efforts to keep state and local governments well-funded will make a major difference in the outcomes for women, she said.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill that included $1 trillion for state and local governments, but the issue is a major bone of contention in the GOP-controlled Senate, which has called for more targeted aid.

A study from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that states would likely need a minimum of $600 billion over the next three years.

“Without substantial federal help during this crisis, they very likely will deeply cut areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in large numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses,” said Michael Leachman, the group’s vice president for state fiscal policy and author of the study.

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