Women in the Pandemic Economy, by Anita Waters

Economic downturns have devastating consequences for workers, but those consequences are not equally felt by everyone. Because paid and unpaid labor is divided by gender, women and men often have very different outcomes during economic hard times. In recessions caused by the cyclical crises that capitalism generates, like the Great Recession of 2008, occupations where men typically work, like construction and manufacturing, are usually hit especially hard. One study, for example, estimates that 74% of the jobs lost in the 2008 recession were held by men.

On the other hand, the recession that has been caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic and aggravated by corporate-centered policies is a different story. Women, especially low-income women, have been particularly devastated by the 2020 economy. In fact, The Guardian calls our current crisis a “pink collar recession.” Women have lost jobs, income, and savings at significantly higher rates than men. At the same time, women were burdened with increased demands for their unpaid labor.

Economists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics explain these disparities in a study published relatively early in the pandemic. While men are overrepresented in the manufacturing, construction, and transportation industries, women are more likely to be employed in retail, education, hospitality, and caregiving, all areas hit hard by the pandemic economy. The impact on women’s livelihoods in the “feminized” sectors of the global economy have affected women worldwide. The United Nations estimates that 135 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty as a result of Covid-19, and many more of these will be women than men.

More women than men, and especially Black and Latinx women, report having trouble paying their bills.

The effects of loss of jobs and income are severe and may well reverberate for years to come. Women and their families face food insecurity, utility shut-offs, and eviction. According to a Pew Research Survey, about a quarter of all adults in the U.S., and one in every three low-wage workers, lost their jobs. More women than men, and especially Black and Latinx women, report having trouble paying their bills, and are more likely than men to have borrowed money, used savings that had been set aside for retirement, and gotten food from a food bank. Women are also less likely than men to have a job in which telecommuting is an option.

Fifteen million households in the U.S. are comprised of single women with children. Two-income families have some cushion if one parent loses employment because of job loss or having to stay home to do child care. Single mothers, especially those who work at low-wage jobs, are already struggling. Besides the income loss that they face, they have sole responsibility for one in five children in the U.S., which leads us to the second big impact that the pandemic economy has on women’s lives: the growing “Second Shift.”

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild popularized the concept of the “Second Shift” in a 1989 book of that name. The Second Shift refers to the unpaid labor that women in the labor force do when they return home to their families at the end of their day of paid employment. There they are expected to cook and serve meals, manage the household, and care for the children. The UN report on the pandemic economy calls the second shift women’s “time poverty.” In the pandemic economy, schools and day-care centers were among the first closures, and households’ child care and even home-schooling responsibilities grew suddenly and exponentially. Even when there is another adult in the household, women spend many more hours than men engaged in these tasks, and the added burdens of the pandemic economy fall hardest on women. A recent report revealed that 1.5 million women left the workforce because of childcare responsibilities owing to the pandemic. For the 15 million single mothers, it is especially difficult. Even informal child-care arrangements (think grandmas) are disrupted by the stay-at-home and social-distance mandates.

This fall, as the pandemic worsens to a third peak, these added Second Shift burdens are not abating. More women than men are giving up paid employment to care for children at home. There is one positive note: researchers find that men in two-parent households are reportedly taking on a greater share of child care and household labor, and these changes may well carry on after Covid recedes.

Behind the alarming national statistics, women are struggling with real-life daily challenges. Take, for example, Marie, a drug addiction counselor outside Dayton, Ohio, with three children. Although her job is secure, she has personally struggled with the added responsibilities of running errands for her elderly parents and parents-in-law. She reported that the schools that her children attend are not honest with parents about potential exposures to the virus, and when students or teachers are quarantined, it is for a week at most, much less time than the Centers for Disease Control recommends.

Not only are many students mimicking the cavalier attitude toward Covid-19 that is modeled by the current president, even some teachers are downplaying the virus and removing their masks in the classroom. Children’s lives are stressed by the pandemic as well as the divisive political climate. When Marie’s son needed urgent mental health care last spring, none of the counseling centers were open. “I doubt I’m the only mother going through this.” Her daughter needed a social security card to apply for a driver’s license, but the social security offices are closed, and the office requires original documents to be sent by mail to them, adding yet another stress to the burdens of the pandemic.

Women are experiencing a “huge up-tick in abuse, a lot of verbal and some physical abuse.”

Marie reported that her clients, who are in medically assisted rehabilitation for opioid addiction, are facing very difficult times, and relapses are at an epidemic proportion. Many have lost full-time jobs when a large manufacturer in the area shut down and have turned to the gig economy to try to pay bills. Some of her clients are in relationships with other recovering addicts, and these households, she said, are especially stressed. Clients have lost jobs and are confined at home with spouses who have lost their jobs and with children whose schools are closed. Marie has seen a “huge up-tick in abuse, a lot of verbal and some physical abuse. A lot of these men aren’t used to being home with children, and that’s been a problem.” With libraries closed, access to the internet is limited, and clients have a hard time applying for medical assistance and other services.

A better world is possible. We must demand relief, in the forms of extended unemployment benefits and replacement pay for workers who must leave their jobs for child-care responsibilities. In contract negotiations, employers need to be pressed to provide better accommodations for workers, given these new demands on their lives. The hours of unpaid labor that is demanded of women in our society need to be recognized and compensated, and systemic gender inequity and misogyny recognized and opposed at every level.

Image: Elvert Barnes (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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