More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March when stay-at-home orders were adopted across the nation to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). That’s 1 out of every 4 American workers. While unemployment has decreased as states have allowed more businesses to re-open, 21 million Americans are still unemployed.
Women have been hit harder than men. As of May 2020, 14.5% of women were unemployed compared with 12.2% of men. According to the National Women’s Law Center, this is the first time since 1948 that the female unemployment rate has reached double digits. While the recession following the 2008 financial crisis was considered by some to be a “man-cession,” some have nicknamed the current recession a “she-cession.”
Higher female unemployment is unusual in economic downturns because men typically work in industries that are closely tied to business cycles– such as manufacturing and construction– and are often more likely to be unemployed when recessions hit. However, more men work in occupations deemed “essential,” like construction workers, firefighters, delivery drivers, and doctors. Men are also more likely to work in industries where they can work remotely from home.
Women are more likely to work in industries that have been completely halted or had to reduce operations from stay-at-home orders and businesses exercising caution in reopening too fast. Women are more likely to work in the service sector, such as the travel and hospitality, restaurant, retail, and hair care and salon industries. All of these “face-to-face” businesses were greatly disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak and many female employees have been furloughed or let go in response.
In addition, many women do not have a financial cushion to support them during unemployment spells. Female-dominated jobs tend to be underpaid and undervalued, which makes it hard for women to save for an emergency fund and achieve financial security. Gender inequities in the workplace and persistent pay gaps in wages have exacerbated women’s financial savings. This is also true for single mothers, who tend to have little in savings and whose unemployment has tripled since February with over a million single mothers losing their jobs.
The lowest-paid workers are generally more likely to be infected by Covid-19, more likely to be unemployed because of the virus, and are more likely to be uninsured because of their unemployment. It is estimated that 545,000 Illinois workers no longer have their employer-provided health insurance coverage, with the largest number of uninsured workers being “face-to-face” workers who are disproportionately women. In Illinois, an estimated 298,000 face-to-face workers are now uninsured– accounting for 55% of all newly uninsured individuals in the state.
Another reason women have been hit hardest is due to childcare. Women across the United States still carry an unequal responsibility for childcare. With schools and childcare centers closed and uncertainty about childcare centers or summer camps opening, parents have had to find ways to care for their young children. Many families rely either on grandparents and other family members or on neighbors and friends, but social distancing guidelines make these options difficult. As a result, some parents– and particularly women– may not return to the workforce. And when women do leave the workforce, for both voluntary and involuntary reasons, they often return to a trajectory of decreased pay over the course of their careers.
There are policies that can be implemented to combat inequalities between men and women in the workforce to ensure we come out of this recession stronger than ever. These include passing statewide paid sick leave, enacting paid parental leave, expanding access to more affordable childcare, and strengthening collective bargaining rights. These policies would support all workers now and in the future.
While employment has improved as economies have gradually re-opened, daily totals of positive Covid-19 tests have grown in many states and much is still uncertain. How will small businesses survive with smaller clienteles in accordance with public health guidelines? Will economies shut down again with the rising number of cases across the nation? Can children go back to school in the fall? When will there be a vaccine?
Two things are certain. Wearing a mask or face covering is helpful in containing the virus. And women have been hit hardest economically by the recession.