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Women of color, single mothers, and women over the age of 55 have been particularly hard hit.
The economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is shaping up to be what some are calling a “she-cession.” That’s because, for the first time in history, women are more than half of the people filing for unemployment.
In April, women made up 55% of the 20.5 million people saying they lost their jobs—and, in some places, it’s even worse. (In Alabama, for example, women filed 67% of unemployment claims one week.) For the first time since 1948, women’s unemployment has hit double digits and stands at 16.2% across the board—though that number is higher for Hispanic and African American women. By comparison, male unemployment is at 13%.
This crisis is markedly different from the 2008 recession, during which 70% of those who lost their jobs were men, many in manufacturing and construction. This time, those hardest hit by job losses are in the service, education, health care, hospitality, and retail industries—all of which are disproportionately staffed by women.
“Those industries shed nearly 30 million jobs since the start of the pandemic,” said C. Nicole Mason, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Women, and particularly women of color, who make up 30% of the service industry, bore a lot of the job losses.”
Another demographic that has been especially hard hit is single mothers, according to a Stateline analysis. Black single mothers, who are more likely to be the sole breadwinners for their children, are therefore particularly vulnerable during the ongoing economic downturn.
For single moms, the pandemic has presented a uniquely “precarious and near impossible” situation, said Mason. With schools and daycares closed, single mothers have all their usual responsibilities—their jobs (or looking for work, if they are now unemployed) and household chores—but now must also make time for education and childcare during the day.
“Pre-Covid, single mothers were already in an economically precarious situation,” Mason said. “These women were struggling to make ends meet before a pandemic, and were more likely to take jobs with lower wages and less flexibility. Those issues have become exacerbated—and they have less savings to ride out an economic storm like this.”
Recovering from the pandemic as a single mother won’t be easy. They’ll need childcare options before they return to work, meaning their ability to hold down a steady job is likely tied to the reopening schedule for schools and daycares—even as many education leaders are already discussing the possibility that five full days of in-person school will not even be possible by fall.
On top of that, now unemployed single mothers will be competing in a job market with millions of other job seekers for a smaller number of positions. Unemployment claims since the pandemic began rose above 40 million this week and 43 states are reporting record high numbers on their unemployment rolls. Many small businesses have permanently closed during the pandemic, so even as reopening begins, there won’t be a one-to-one job replacement for everyone who lost theirs in recent months. Mothers often face hiring and workplace discrimination, as well as difficulties finding jobs that are flexible with their childcare responsibilities—factors that will only be made worse by current market circumstances.
Another group of women facing a tough road to recovery is those over the age of 55. Their unemployment rate hit 15.5% in April, up from 3.3% the week before. These women will face the additional challenge of age discrimination when they look for work again, because unemployed women between 50 and 61 are 18% less likely to find new work than their peers between 25 and 34—and at 62 and older, that number jumps to 50%.
Experts like Mason say that more needs to be done at both the state and federal level to ensure that women—who before the pandemic made up 51% of the workforce and have now slipped to 49%—don’t fall out of work for a prolonged period of time. Mason hopes that some discussions and policy changes brought on by the pandemic that have made life easier for women, especially women of color, single moms, and older women, are here to stay. Expanded eligibility for unemployment, the stimulus checks sent out to most households, and increased funding for childcare are all policies that, if continued, would aid women in their economic recovery.
Some states, however, are taking the conversation even further. Hawaii is considering what the state’s Commission on the Status of Women calls a “feminist economic recovery plan” that suggests directly helping vulnerable groups of women during the state’s rebuilding efforts over the next few years. “The road to economic recovery should not be across women’s backs,” the first line of the plan reads. “This is our moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.”
The proposal calls for free childcare for essential workers, a nearly $25 minimum wage for single mothers, increased investment in maternal health care and midwife services, and the creation of an emergency fund for vulnerable women, including those who are undocumented, Native Hawaiian women, and sex trafficking survivors. It also suggests that the state focus on how to make sure women are an equal part of Hawaii’s emerging economies. As Hawaii tries to reduce its reliance on military, tourism and luxury development industries, the report says state leaders need to ensure “women have access to ‘green jobs’ in renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmental management and construction jobs (89.9% male workers) through stimulus programs that promote gender and racial equity.”
“Rather than rush to rebuild the status quo of inequality, we should encourage a deep structural transition to an economy that better values the work we know is essential to sustaining us,” the plan states.
The plan includes exactly the type of policies that experts like Mason are calling for in every state. “Because this pandemic has disproportionately impacted women, we’re going to have to create targeted programs to make it an even recovery,” Mason said. “The pandemic has revealed some cracks in our systems and we have to reimagine them in ways that work for women and families. There’s just no way around it.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.