Double jeopardy for women workers

Massively unemployed while overrepresented in frontline jobs

In September, 2020, 1,081,000 workers left the paid U.S. workforce. 4 out of 5 of those workers were women. [Source: U.S. Department of Labor] PHOTO: Shutterstock
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It’s cute to call the economic meltdown that hit women so hard a “shecession” — a mashup of she and recession. But ask any woman who’s been laid off — and the numbers are staggering — fun memes do not put food on the table. In the U.S. economic collapse starting in April 2020, women lost 56% of the disappeared jobs, despite representing 46% of the overall workforce. Those losses erased a decade of female job gains.

On the other hand, those who have remained employed are disproportionately represented in essential jobs. Women of color are often in the most dangerous positions. In schools, hospitals and retail sites, women are doing the hazardous day-to-day work that is so vital and yet so undervalued.

At home they also do hours of unpaid labor cooking, cleaning, shopping, caring for the young and old.

Despite how bad things are, there is a silver lining. Today’s female workers are in a unique position to demand what they need, because their role is so vital to the economy. Because women hold down the home front and essential jobs, this shecession has shown their power to change the status quo.

A many-sided crisis. In July 2020, McKinsey Global reported that while women made up 46% of the U.S. workforce pre-pandemic, they suffered 56% of Covid-related job losses. And the U.S. Labor Department said that in the month of September women left the workforce at four times the rate of men, 865,000 to 216,000.

Of course, not all women were laid off. In February 2021, CBS News reported that nearly 3 million females in the U.S. had quit jobs to stay at home and deal with family. Lack of childcare and closed schools helped force this move home. Entrenched sexism that leads to persistent pay inequality, undervalued work and antiquated notions of childcare also fostered the exodus.

Since the first lockdown began, violence in the home increased. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has shown a marked increase in calls. Stress, whether caused by economic instability or too much “togetherness,” is a known trigger for violence against partners and family members.

On the flip side, living alone during a pandemic isn’t all peaches and cream either. Loneliness and isolation are hard on single adults, particularly elders, more of whom are women. The reality is, despite talk show hosts gabbing about cleaned out closets and do-it-yourself projects, most people are just trying to survive without enough (or any) support.

Those women still employed are likely to be doing essential jobs. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, while about half of all workers are female, 64.4% of frontline workers are women. This gender disparity is seen particularly in healthcare, 76.8% female, and childcare and social services, 85.2%.

People of color are also overrepresented in frontline industries. While Black Americans are just over 13% of the population, Black workers encompass 15% of all essential workers in the pandemic, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, Latinx represent just over 18% of the population, but make up 21% of the essential workforce.

And despite laboring in the most dangerous jobs, more than one-third of workers in many frontline industries live in low-income families. Risky work done for less, that is the role of women and people of color in the U.S.

Demanding change. Women’s work is vital to the economy — both at home and on the job. Yet too few survival needs are being met. Closing childcare centers created a crisis for working families. As of December 2020, 27% of childcare providers remained closed. This situation put strain on an already insufficient system. California Child Care Network estimated in 2019, prior to Covid, that the state had approximately 23% of the licensed childcare needed for working families.

It’s going to take community organizing and pressure to win necessary demands.

Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party have long called and organized for free, 24-hour, quality childcare. Large corporations should provide this service, as they did during WWII. Smaller businesses should get tax credits or assistance to help provide these services. And publicly funded centers must be available and accessible to all. Not only does this assist working families, it provides employment opportunities.

The sexist, racist reality of “last hired, first fired” hits hard on all women, but especially women of color. To deal with it, affirmative action should be reinstituted in all levels of public employment and introduced in the private sector. Quotas, to guarantee enforcement, must be included.

Jobs to maintain infrastructure, provide needed services and protect the environment, are key to providing full employment. All the programs should include union wages and benefits and the right to bargain collectively. See “A Robin Hood program for working-class survival ” for more ideas on what can be done.

These are not pie-in-the-sky demands. There is already a push among radicals in labor unions for 40 hours pay for 30 hours work. This demand from the Great Depression allows for increased employment while guaranteeing a full week’s wages.

Black women are leading the unionization drive at Amazon in Alabama (see “Essential US workers spark labor upsurge”). Others are fighting for on-the-job safety and increasing the minimum wage.

As the Radical Women document Women Workers: Sparkplugs of Labor stated “the aspirations of women workers will ultimately result in a new political agenda, one which will emphatically demand an end to sexism and racism not just in civil rights laws but in terms of economic opportunity and political power.”

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