Coronavirus recession will hit women harder, experts warn

Women of colour in particular could suffer disproportionately from virus-fuelled economic downturn.

Crystal Crawford
Crystal Crawford has seen the income from her childcare work disappear during the coronavirus pandemic [File: courtesy Crystal Crawford/Al Jazeera]

Crystal Crawford, 34, loves her job as a social worker at a nonprofit private school for children who have experienced homelessness. But the pay has never been enough to live on in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, so Crawford has always nannied for up to 10 families at a time, taking care of kids after school, on parents’ date nights, during school vacations and more.

“A lot of hourly workers look like me, and unfortunately, when they get rid of those jobs, people are having to seek resources from the government or from food pantries,” Crawford told Al Jazeera. “People who thought they had it all together – right now, we’re struggling to maintain our households.”

Crawford also runs a small business that pairs families with nannies. The money she earned caring for children herself used to bring in an extra $900 to $1,200 per month, she said, in addition to the $45,000 she makes per year as a social worker.

But the coronavirus pandemic has caused her childcare work to dry up completely, and her social worker’s salary is not enough to cover almost $1,400 in rent, plus utilities and food, per month. She is also faced with the uncertainty of when her school will reopen, and whether a full-time social worker will be part of its distance learning plan if kids cannot go back to their classrooms.

“The cost of living is super high in Atlanta, and to just have one-third of your salary gone on the drop of a dime, that’s a hard hit for someone,” she explained.“Every day, we’re just hoping to keep our doors open, hoping that the kids get to go back to school in August. Everything is just kind of up in the air right now.”

Crawford is far from alone. Women are a huge part of the workforce responding to the coronavirus pandemic, but on average, they are paid less than men and poised to lose more from the continuing economic fallout, according to an analysis by the World Economic Forum.

Part of it has to do with the jobs women fill, but the gender pay gap and the large burden of unpaid childcare and housework also play a role, said Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St Louis.

“Women’s disproportionate burden for caregiving hinders their ability to participate fully in the paid labour force. This is true in the best of times, and especially true, and dire, in times of economic crisis,” Collins told Al Jazeera.

“Women also hold a disproportionate share of jobs in the care and service sectors – especially women of colour – so they’re at the front lines and in the trenches of the coronavirus pandemic,” she added.

Women comprise 70 percent of health and social sector workers in 104 countries, according to a 2019 report from the World Health Organization, and contribute $3 trillion per year to global health, half of which is in the form of unpaid care work.

But on average, women healthcare workers earn 28 percent less than men and are less likely to be employed full-time, according to the WHO. Both of those factors make women more likely to feel the effects of the coronavirus recession more acutely. 

People who thought they had it all together - right now, we’re struggling to maintain our households

by Crystal Crawford, social worker and part-time childcare provider

‘Well-worn path of inequality’

Of course, it is not just healthcare workers who are on the front lines of the crisis – grocery store workers, domestic workers, delivery people and transit workers are all still working outside their homes, and many are women and people of colour, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive-leaning US think tank.

“Some of the front line workers are going to be disproportionately Black and brown people – people working in grocery stores, transportation, public transit, lots of different sectors – and they’re continuing to work,” Gould told Al Jazeera. “At the same time, we know that Hispanic workers and Black workers are much less likely to be able to telework, so that tells you about the kind of jobs that they have and their ability to weather this storm from a health security standpoint or a financial security standpoint.”

And while unemployment has soared across the United States in every demographic, “initial data suggests that women are more likely to lose their job at this time, and that’s somewhat due to the types of jobs that are being lost,” which include jobs in the service and care sectors, Gould said.

In some of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus – including New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia and Minnesota – unemployment rates for women surged between 13 and 35 points above average figures during the last two weeks of March, according to data obtained by journalists at the nonprofit Fuller Project.

That is a contrast to the 2008 financial crisis, which first impacted industries that mostly employed men, said Gould.

“The Great Recession, to a large extent, was driven by initial losses in manufacturing and construction, which are dominated by men,” she said. “These sectors that are being hit first and hardest now are not the typical sectors. So it’s not just that you might have women being hit, it’s that you’re having more low-wage workers being hit, and that’s an important distinction.”

Among those low-wage workers are the US’s 2.2 million domestic workers, who care for children and the elderly, cook, clean and perform a variety of other household tasks. Some 91 percent of them are women, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, and many are women of colour and immigrants.

Since domestic workers have never had a social safety net – including paid time off, living wages and health insurance – that makes them even more vulnerable in a crisis, said Haeyoung Yoon, the senior director for immigration policy at the nonprofit, National Domestic Workers Alliance.

“The coronavirus pandemic is travelling the well-worn path of inequality, and we are already seeing that low-wage workers, and women low-wage workers in particular, are hit the hardest,” Yoon told Al Jazeera. “Poverty and gender inequality will be a decisive factor in how this virus will spread and its long-term effects.”

The coronavirus has already taken a major short-term toll. A recent survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found 72 percent of domestic workers had no work for the week beginning April 6, a 9 percent increase from the previous week.

And while the median wage for domestic workers is just $10.21 per hour, the same survey found that 77 percent of domestic workers are their family’s primary breadwinners. The coronavirus crisis has the potential to thrust entire households into poverty.

“Many domestic workers earn poverty wages, work with no job security, and no safety net,” Yoon said. “Domestic workers cannot telework from home. They must still go to work. But, for nannies and house cleaners, they are experiencing sudden and devasting unemployment or underemployment.”

It's not just that you might have women being hit, it’s that you’re having more low-wage workers being hit, and that’s an important distinction

by Elise Gould, senior economist, Economic Policy Institute

Working more – for free

Women also do the lion’s share of unpaid care work at home, including taking care of children and the elderly, cooking meals and cleaning.

Globally, women perform 76.2 percent of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men, a 2018 report by the International Labour Organization found, and “unpaid care work is the main barrier preventing women from getting into, remaining and progressing in the labour force”.

Even in families that are used to dividing up tasks more equitably, if a father earns more at his job, a mother might be expected to spend more time caring for or homeschooling kids during the pandemic.

Women working full-time in the US earn roughly 82 cents to every dollar a man earns, according to the US Census Bureau. That gender pay gap becomes even more pronounced for women of colour, with Black women earning only 62 cents on average compared to every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns, and Hispanic women earning only 54 cents.

“Because the gender wage gap exists, it could be the case that if somebody has to cut their hours to take care of these things, then it’s more likely going to be the woman,” Gould said.

Uncertain future

All of it makes for an uncertain economic future for many women.

Crawford said she has no childcare work lined up, and only two of her 10 regular clients have reached out to ask her how she is faring in the crisis. None of them have continued to pay her, even though she had standing appointments with many of them.

But the crisis might mean going back to being a full-time nanny, even though Crawford has a master’s degree.

“We don’t know when the kids are going to go back to school, so we can’t really plan for August right now. It’s unpredictable because we might be doing distance learning until God knows when,” Crawford said. “I’m thankful that if this all tumbles down and I’m no longer able to work at the school, that I’m able to get a full-time nanny gig once the pandemic is over.”

Source: Al Jazeera