Carole Levine August 3, 2021
The good news is that the economy seems to be rebounding after the pandemic. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. economy has fully recovered from the pandemic as of June but cautioned that the new surge in covid cases could bring uncertainty. The economy grew at an annual rate of 6.5 percent for the quarter ending in June as vaccinated people re-emerged into the workplace and the economy. Good news for everyone? Well, perhaps not everyone. For many, especially women, and especially among those women filling low-wage positions, the pandemic and its “recovery” has been more of a setback than an opportunity.
In a recent article published in The Hill, women employed in the tech industry urged their bosses to remain innovative and rethink their workplace models in order to offer the kind of flexibility that could help retain women in the field. But this is a field where women may have some clout and might be able to exert some pressure. That is not true for all sectors of the workplace.
What is also clear from this is that women, are not returning to the workforce in the same numbers as before Covid-19, and that they are not returning in the same numbers as men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in June of 2021, as employment rates trended toward pre-pandemic levels, there were still more employed men than women. In an analysis published by the National Women’s Law Center, women will need more than nine straight months of job gains similar to the 47.6% gain they achieved in June in order to recover the 3.8 million net jobs women lost since February 2020.
The impact of Covid-19 on workers, particularly low-income workers and workers of color was devastating, but especially so for women. Writing for Brookings, Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross present compelling data as to why this pandemic hit low-income women, particularly working mothers, especially hard. They pointed out: Women are much more likely than men to work in low-paying jobs: 37% of working men earn low hourly wages, nearly 10 percentage points lower than women. Some of the difference between men and women is explained by personal choice—for example women often pursue education in lower paying majors, fields, and occupations than men. Some women also prioritize work flexibility over wages. But, an extensive body of evidence shows women also face discrimination in the labor market. Even when women make the “right” choices—completing education and pursuing employment in high wage industries and occupations—they are underpaid relative to men, earning 92 cents to the dollar according to one recent analysis. While this underpayment doesn’t necessarily push women into low wages, the earnings disparity illustrates the devaluation of women’s contributions to the labor force. Occupations dominated by women and people of color, particularly care and domestic workers like home care aides, have been systematically and intentionally excluded from federal labor and employment protections, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act’s guarantee of minimum wage and overtime pay, and offer very low wages. Evidence also demonstrates that as an occupation becomes more female-dominated, median wages decline. Covid-19 has made worse an already difficult and unfair labor situation.
Add to all of this the responsibilities of family, now including overseeing home schooling during the school closures due to Covid and you have the “perfect storm” for women who were already carrying more than their share of responsibilities to question going back to a workplace that does not support them in so many ways.
We do know why women are not returning to the workforce in the same numbers as men, or with the same enthusiasm as their male co-workers. “We’ve known for a long time that one of the reasons that women overall tend to be paid less than men and women overall face so many barriers to advancement, promotion, is because they tend to spend more time out of the workforce for child and other family caregiving, and our corporate systems are set up in a way to really devalue that work,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “And that comes at a huge cost, not only to women themselves, and their families, and their household incomes and their retirement. It also comes at a cost to the companies and to the economy at large who miss out on all of those perspectives and skills that those women can bring.”
And this is a problem that extends beyond the bounds of what skills these women bring to the workplace. It touches on the cultural and racial issues that are always there. Women, especially women of color, are especially vulnerable. According to Google’s annual diversity report, the highest levels of attrition were among Black and Native American women employees in 2021. All of this contributes to why many of these women prefer not to return to a workplace that does not treat them well but would rather work from home where they can avoid racial harassment and cultural insensitivity.
But too many women do not have the option of working from home. Enter “The Marshall Plan for Moms”. Founded by the CEO of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujami has proposed a framework that would: provide direct payments to moms, who have had their paid labor in the workforce replaced by unseen, unpaid labor at home; pass policies such as paid family leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity; and build retraining programs to ensure that women can fill the jobs that exist. All this with an additional $2,400 monthly stipend for mothers. While it may sound a bit crazy, it has caught the attention of Melinda Gates and has been endorsed by a coalition of over 30 credible national organizations. And Saujami is not living in a fantasy world. Writing for the Hill, she stated: “To be clear, a Marshall Plan for Moms will not solve the deeply rooted norms that make women our default caregivers in the first place. The battle against those norms — against our hugely damaging structural inequities — doesn’t end with a monthly stipend from the federal government. What might end, or at least begin to abate, is the gross disregard for the value of mothers’ unpaid, unseen, unappreciated labor. A Marshall Plan for Moms will stimulate the economy. It will give women the support they need so they can — eventually — get back to work. And it will send a hugely important signal to little girls and young women across the country: that our society values the contributions of women, and that their careers, dreams, and lives will not be taken for granted.”
The Child Tax Credits, a part of the American Rescue Plan, provide some of the support of the “Marshall Plan for Moms”. Payments began coming to families in the last months and, according to many sources, including the Center for American Progress, have the potential of reducing child poverty in the United States and lifting nearly 5 million children out of poverty. They quote data from Columbia University research showing that this would cut child poverty in half. In doing this and having a monthly check from the federal government that could support family expense, perhaps, and this is a big “perhaps”, some of the issues that impede women from rejoining the workforce might be dealt with. This would be especially important for Black and Brown women, according to the Center for American Progress, as they carry the most disproportionate burden when it comes to meeting the costs of raising children. But again, the question rears its head: “Is this enough?”
The answer to this question for many is that it is not enough. They have experienced an alternative – working from home or working an alternative schedule – that gives them some flexibility that that they did not have before. Nearly 1 in 5 women said they never want to return to work in person, according to a national survey. Working from home also freed them from things that they tolerated but disliked in an office or workplace environment. Things like harassment and discrimination that if they spoke up about might cost them their job; or long commutes on unreliable or unsafe public transportation; or hours that were changed from week to week; or finding and paying for childcare. All of this disappears when your workplace is your home.
But for those whose work is not portable and cannot be home-based, the key issue in returning to the workforce is childcare and that, particularly for low-income women of color, is an issue that is yet to be resolved. This has been recognized by some Democratic lawmakers and economists who say that federal intervention is needed now, including accessible, affordable childcare and paid family leave. Without this, according to Megan Cassella, writing for Politico, women’s workforce participation rate could lag for years and might never fully recover to its pre-pandemic level. She further points out that an investment in childcare would employ more workers in an industry where 95% of the jobs are held by women. While all this sounds good, the costs of doing this weigh heavily on our federal legislators on both sides of the aisle who point to how well the economy is recovering without these additional costs and say we don’t need this extra expense.
It seems that it is the women who worked in the low-wage jobs, often women of color, who are most at risk of not returning to the workforce. And the numbers are not small. Forty-six percent of all working women (28 million) work in low-wage work according to 2018 government data. Compare that to 37% of men. “It’s lower-income, hourly workers who are experiencing the biggest hit to their working hours and labor force participation,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who focuses on issues of gender inequality. “Those are the ones we should be most concerned about.” And for these low-income women, this is not just about wages. It is about health care concerns around the pandemic and finding a better paying job that will actually cover the cost of childcare. This is not a new issue. It is just becoming more and more magnified. Writing in 2014, Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist pointed out that if companies “did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours,” then the gender wage gap between men and women “would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether.”
Clearly things need to change. We have an economy that is dependent on a workforce of low-wage workers, many of whom are women and many of those women are mothers of dependent children. We have a dearth of accessible, affordable, quality childcare that is most often staffed by women (usually low-paid women). We have women who have been working from home, some by choice and some not for the last 12 months or more and some who have been home without work due to pandemic job loss. This is a situation that calls for our leaders to truly value the labor of women in both the workforce and at home and step up with plans that ease transitions to adequately paid work, whatever that looks like and wherever that takes place (in-home, at a worksite, etc.) and to especially target those who have the least as their top priority. To do anything less, is unacceptable. A rebellion of working women would not be pretty!