In December 2020, the U.S economy lost 140,000 jobs. Women accounted for all of them.
Sheree Allen, an organizer and leader with the Fight for $15 and NC Raise Up, was a childcare worker in Durham, North Carolina. At the Kairos Center’s conference last fall, “Moral Policy in a Time of Crisis,” she described her experiences being laid off during the pandemic, losing her benefits like medical insurance and paid sick leave, and being ineligible for unemployment insurance because of her status as an independent contractor:
I was only making $5 per hour… and I got laid off around the start of the pandemic. They told me that they didn’t need me anymore, because of the coronavirus. Our work has always been undervalued, underpaid and our rights have been unprotected. Now they’re saying that childcare workers are essential workers who keep the economy running. but for years they’re told us that we are unskilled, and that we don’t deserve $15 an hour. The truth is, all of our low wage jobs are essential jobs. They have always been essential jobs, and we deserve at least $15 an hour, full benefits and union rights. Getting laid off has been extremely trying for me. My bills have never stopped coming in, just because I lost my job. [The unemployment insurance system] is a really difficult system to figure out. My childcare job, and many childcare jobs, don’t give any kind of insurance or paid sick days. I’m still very concerned about getting sick and not having health insurance…If I had my choice, I would rather be taking care of children, but after months of looking for work, I’ve had to take whatever work is available right now.
Sheree is not alone. Women are disproportionately represented among the low-wage workforce and have been hit especially hard during the COVID-19 crisis. Shana Bartley from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) shared how 64 percent of the low-wage workforce are represented by women and most of them are paid less than $12 / hour. Although more than 6 million jobs have been lost among women in the workforce since February 2020, representing 53.2 percent of overall net job loss, their needs have not been adequately taken up in terms of the policy responses to the pandemic.
As Shana said,
They’re doing critical work and deserve compensation and benefits that support them and their families to live healthy and full lives, as they define them. More than one in four of these women have at least one child under the age of 18 at home with them. The majority of mothers who are low paid workers are sole or primary breadwinners, so their incomes are critical to supporting their families. So now we are in a pandemic. And women are overrepresented in jobs that require work outside of the home…Women are the majority of workers risking their lives to provide health care, childcare and other essential services, while simultaneously being over-represented in many of the occupations that have borne the brunt of pandemic related job losses.
While nearly one-third of the low-wage workforce is staffed by white, non-Hispanic women, there is disproportionate representation in low-wage work among women of color. Latina and Native women’s representation in the low-wage workforce is twice as large as their share of the overall workforce. Black women’s share of the low-wage workforce is one and a half times larger than their share of the overall workforce and Asian American and Pacific Islander women share is about 1.3 times larger.
Although the pandemic hit all women in the low-wage workforce, NWLC has reported that 57.1% of Latina and 53.6% of Black women said they lost employment income since March.
These numbers demonstrate why women with low-wage jobs, especially women of color, must be at the center of our economic policies, both pandemic related and otherwise. Indeed, they were over-represented in the low-wage workforce before the pandemic, where they enjoy fewer worker protections. This pandemic has made them even more vulnerable to economic and health insecurity, despite their continued status as “essential” workers.
This is why Sheree and so many others are calling for comprehensive worker protections:
We’re demanding better safety protections for frontline workers. We’re demanding paid sick leave for all workers, no matter where we work. We’re demanding health care for all. We’re demanding extended unemployment for workers who are laid off like me or workers who had their hours cut because of the virus. And all essential workers need a permanent raise to at least $15 an hour, plus hazard pay. We’re demanding real COVID relief for everyone, including all immigrants, regardless of their status. And we are demanding the chance to come together in unions, so we can have a voice on the job. These demands are important, just so that we can survive.
Watch Sheree’s video statement here.
Watch the panel discussion with Shana Bartley from NWLC, Chris Caruso from the Kairos Center, Ben Wilkins from the Fight for $15, Janie Grice from United for Respect, Beth Kontos from AFT Massachusetts and Darrick Hamilton from The New School here: