Although much of the U.S. economy is resuming activity that increasingly resembles pre-pandemic life, low-wage female workers have emerged as a major focal point — if not the epicenter — of workers left behind in the recovery.
Millions of women who left the workforce over the past year are not planning to return anytime soon.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on working women because it has taken existing tensions and shortcomings in our economic system and amplified them to an extent that we haven’t really seen before,” Nicole Bateman, a senior research analyst in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, told Yahoo News.
“I would say that there are two reasons for this. One is the concentration of women in low-wage jobs, which were hit and continue to be hit hardest by the pandemic. And then also the sensitivity of their participation in the labor market to the availability of childcare.”
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic uncovered the cracks in underpaid domestic care work and inaccessible childcare facilities that threaten the economy and widen the gender wage gap.
According to an Economic Policy Institute report, 92 percent of the 2.2 million domestic workers are women, and just over half are women of color. These women are the nannies, housekeepers and health aides who work inside homes and in assisted living homes, senior and childcare centers to provide caregiving and cleaning services.
Many of them were thrust to the frontlines of the pandemic, interacting with vulnerable populations while white collar workers conducted Zoom meetings from the safety of their homes. And these care workers were in a precarious position even before the pandemic, juggling demanding jobs with low wages and few protections.
“To this day, the workforce works without job security, unpredictable hours, no access to a safety net. Eighty-two percent of domestic workers came into the pandemic without a single sick day, no health care,” Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told Yahoo News.
Lilieth Clacken, a home health aide who works with two New York-based home care agencies, is among the countless care workers who continued to work during the pandemic. Clacken, who is asthmatic and thus especially vulnerable to COVID-19, said she had to meet with patients, often without knowing whether or not they had been infected.
“I was very fearful, to be honest, because I’m a grandmother, and I live with my husband and my daughter and my two grandchildren. So I was very scared. But we were also educated to the fact that, you know, in our job, we are needed,” Clacken said to Yahoo News. “So these patients were even more scared than I was, because of their age, obviously. And so they were scared, I was scared.”
Clacken recounted the myriad other challenges she faced at the time, including a lack of access to quality PPE equipment and cleaning supplies.
“Some of the sanitizers were not even up to grade. I can see on the hands of my fellow aides. They were damaged, still are damaged, but we go through because we know that’s what we signed up for in caring for people. So that’s what we did,” she said.
Unlike Clacken, many other home care workers were unable to keep their jobs during the pandemic. Anna Couch-Superville was a home care worker in Queens when the pandemic hit, but ended up unemployed.
“Most of my co-workers in the pandemic have lost patients because some of the clients refused to let us in their homes because of the virus. It was really difficult,” Couch-Superville recalled.
Even as care centers open back up and domestic workers are allowed back into homes following the rollout of vaccinations, the care industry is still a fraction of its former self.
“[Domestic workers] still have a 25 percent unemployment rate,” Poo said. “So there’s still a lot of people who are out of work. And many domestic workers have not been able to get access to relief either because of their immigration status or because of the nature of their work, which is very informal.”
These challenges mirror and exacerbate those faced by women, especially low-wage women, across the economy.
Black and Latina women, who work disproportionately in low-wage industries, face the highest unemployment rates of 8.5 percent and 7.9 percent respectively, compared to 5.2 percent for white women, according to the June data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women’s participation in the labor force is at the lowest it’s been since 1989, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
These numbers reflect the long-term consequences of the pandemic, during which an estimated 2.3 million women dropped out of the labor force between February 2020 and February 2021 as the closure of care centers and schools during COVID-19 burdened working mothers with the additional responsibility of child and elder care. Many of them are still unable to return.
“Roughly 5 million women still can’t work due to childcare issues,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in an April Jobs Report. “This reflects not just the ongoing acute childcare crisis but longstanding structural barriers to families having access to affordable childcare options.”
According to a Lean In and McKinsey & Company report, mothers have been three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for a majority of housework and childcare, and mothers have also been twice as likely as fathers to worry that their work performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.
Women of color, in particular, have shouldered greater caretaking responsibilities than their white counterparts. Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be responsible for all childcare and housework, and Black mothers are twice as likely to take on those responsibilities, the McKinsey report found.
The care crisis has presented low-wage workers with two equally poor alternatives. If mothers stay home and take care of their children, they lose income. But if they go to work, they often cannot afford childcare, and have to leave their children at home with no caretaker. While neither is a viable option, current labor statistics reflect that mothers have chosen the former, leaving their jobs to focus on caretaking responsibilities.
“Those who reported being out of the labor force for caregiving reasons was about 14 percent, up nearly 2 percentage points from a year earlier,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, said in an October speech on economic recovery. “If not soon reversed, the decline in the participation rate for prime‑age women could have longer-term implications for household incomes and potential growth.”
Poo, the labor activist, put it more bluntly: “If 60 percent of the American population is earning less than $50,000 a year, how are they going to pay someone a living wage to care for their family members?”
The sudden decline in caregivers and services has brought to attention the importance of their work, especially in keeping women in the workplace. Because not only are care workers mostly women, but women disproportionately rely upon them.
President Biden also addressed the issue during a Wednesday economic speech. He recalled his early days in the U.S. Senate, when he commuted back to Delaware because his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident and he couldn’t afford care for his surviving children.
“There are a lot of women not working today because they can’t go back to their jobs because they have no one to take care of their children — they can’t afford it,” he said.
The Biden administration is pushing its American Families and Jobs plans as necessary next steps. Many advocates who spoke to Yahoo News agreed, noting that the $3.5 trillion effort is unprecedented in scale, and that it represents a cultural shift.
The two plans argue that caregivers are a form of critical infrastructure, made up of humans instead of asphalt and bridges. They shell out hundreds of billions of dollars to families with children, to universal preschool programs, to childcare affordability and more. They include proposals to improve care workers’ wages and benefits and to prioritize care for seniors and the disabled.
“I think that the real key to bringing women back into the labor force will be trying as hard as we can to implement some of these policies from the American Families plan, like paid leave and increased wages,” Bateman said. “If you want people to work, you need to pay them enough, so that it makes it worth their time. Because if it costs more to send a child to daycare than a woman earns at their job, then working isn’t even an option.”
Democrats in Congress link the effort with a separate $1 trillion infrastructure bill that gained bipartisan steam in the Senate this week. That bill, slimmed down during Senate negotiations, casts a more traditional definition of infrastructure, funneling money to railways and waterways. It excludes the investments in caregivers that were in Biden’s original infrastructure proposals.
The more expansive package faces an uphill battle in Congress, where Democrats hope to use the reconciliation process to aid them in passing it. Reconciliation is governed by byzantine rules limiting legislation to budgetary measures, but the process allows for a 50-vote threshold in the Senate, bypassing the expected GOP filibuster.
As Democrats push for a unified vision of infrastructure — including both airports and caregiver networks — advocates like Poo hope that the public and policymaking apparatus will respond to the needs of low-wage women that were highlighted by the pandemic.
“I think what the pandemic helped us realize is that we need collective solutions and we need infrastructure, we need policies, we need public investment just like we have public education and schools and roads and bridges. We need to be investing in care in the same way,” Poo said.
“That’s why this moment is such a historic moment of opportunity to change the way we treat this work and value caregiving in this country, because that awareness has opened and now we need the policy to follow.”
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