Women helped to get us through the pandemic and we must center them in the recovery
One year into the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic impacts, just one of the innumerable losses we have faced, are enormous. So many have lost jobs, risked their health and well-being by doing dangerous work and met greater needs to care for children throughout the pandemic. For this Women’s History month, I am uplifting the women who helped Massachusetts get through the last 12 months of the pandemic. The best way we can honor women is to ensure the recovery from COVID-19 is squarely centered on their needs.
“She-cession.” We have heard this term, but it does not encapsulate for me the full extent of the economic devastation of the last year for women. Job losses are staggering – in December 2020, women accounted for ALL U.S. job losses, and many have dropped out of the workforce entirely. The ratio of women working has now fallen below 57% for the first time since 1988. The pandemic has further highlighted the inequality that exists due to race and gender, and it is our responsibility to face these issues head on.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nationally, 2.5 million women have lost jobs or left the workforce over the pandemic. This issue is pervasive in Massachusetts as well, where women account for nearly 80% of all workers who left the workforce in January as a result of COVID-19.
It is important to understand that all women have not been affected equally – women in communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The Bureau of Labor Statistics displays a distressing trend that women of color are experiencing the highest unemployment rates nationwide – the highest is for Latina women at 8.8%, followed closely by Black women at 8.5%, compared to unemployment rates for white women at 5.9%.
The crisis has severely strained industries where women’s employment is more concentrated, like restaurants, retail, hospitality and health care. There are also thousands of permanent business closures due to financial constraints during the pandemic– meaning many of the positions originally filled by women, or owned by women, may be lost for good.
Loss of child care and the increased challenges of school-aged children being home or in hybrid school poses particular challenges to women’s ability to remain in the workforce. As COVID-19 has forced the closure of schools and early education centers, keeping children in homes makes it more difficult for parents to work.
Mothers have provided the majority of child care throughout the pandemic, and often put their careers on hold to do so. A Census Bureau report found that 25-44 year old women were three times as likely as men to cite lack of child care as their reason for not working during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, 69.1% of women said the pandemic kept them from returning to work in a survey in September of 2020, when schools would have normally started. I hear this from constituents often – that juggling work and care needs has meant that women have left their job to focus on their family.
It is clear the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately damaging women’s employment. But the lasting ramifications will depend on our response. We must take action to uplift women’s experiences for the duration of the crisis and provide support as we head for recovery.
First, it is imperative that we begin recognizing the indispensable work of women during the pandemic, both as caregivers and essential workers. The Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, of which I am a Board member, has prioritized the impact of the pandemic on women and taken a leadership role in addressing these needs.
I am also prioritizing legislation, like a recent vote on Emergency Paid Sick Time, so workers do not have to choose between going to work sick or losing the pay they need to make ends meet – particularly important to women, people of color, and immigrants who are overrepresented in frontline occupations. Pay equity and a focus on hiring women back into the workforce are also imperative as we work to undo the damage this crisis has caused on women’s livelihoods and career opportunities long-term.
Finally, access to affordable child care is essential to women’s ability to participate in the workforce without putting their children’s well-being at risk. I am working with families, schools, and early educators to increase funding for early education and care programs. As a majority female workforce, raising pay for early educators is critical to our recovery, as are subsidies for families to improve ability to afford early childhood care.
Our response to the growing she-cession will determine the role of women in the workforce post-COVID-19. Women are a vital part of our economy, and centering the needs of women is key to a successful and inclusive economic recovery. We must continue to take action to protect workers, promote equitable pay and increase accessibility to early education and care to honor and support women in the recovery.
Christine P. Barber is a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Barber sworn in January 2015. A resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, she was elected as a Democrat to represent the 34th Middlesex district.