The most recent jobs report might indicate the country is emerging from the coronavirus-induced economic crisis, but policymakers focused on recovery should continue to build upon recently adopted policies like paid sick and family leave to help women get back in the workforce and balance the demands of work and family. While the pandemic did not create gender inequality, it exacerbated the challenges women—especially women of color—face regularly. Women continue to experience higher levels of unemployment, shoulder an unequal share of household chores, risk their health as frontline workers, and face dropping out of the workforce as a result of these pressures. Women ultimately bear both the brunt of the economic fallout from COVID-19 and the responsibility of carrying the country through the pandemic.
How policymakers respond to this will dictate whether women can achieve work-life balance and whether the country can expect a speedy economic recovery.
Congress should expand coverage and eligibility for paid sick and family leave provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Since the pandemic hit, nearly two-thirds of frontline workers are women, occupying jobs such as health care (76.8 percent), child and social services (85.2 percent), cashiers (71.8 percent), retail salespersons (63.5 percent), and customer service representatives (63.7 percent). Of these industries, two—health care and cashiers—carry some of the greatest risk from COVID-19 transmission. Black women make up nearly one-third of all nursing assistants and home health aides. Meanwhile, Latinas and Native American women are concentrated in low-wage jobs such as customer service representatives and cashiers.
And because many workers were excluded from the emergency paid sick and family leave provisions due to employer-size exemptions and carve-outs, health care workers and cashiers most directly at risk have little to no access to paid sick and family leave. If these women or a family member becomes sick or they have a minor child at home, the struggle to balance work and family life is significant.
For women who are both essential workers in low-wage occupations and single parents, the challenges are even steeper. They can’t afford to lose any portion of their income, are often unable to work from home, and are far less likely to have access to paid leave or child care. In 2019, only 6 percent of the lowest-wage workers had access to paid family leave compared to 34 percent of the highest-wage workers, and Latinos had the least access to any form of paid leave.
Although women make up most of the essential workforce, they are also overrepresented in industries hit hardest by unemployment. According to Labor Department data for the month of May, 14.5 percent of women remain unemployed compared to 11.6 percent for men. And the unemployment rate was higher for Latinas (19 percent) and Black women (16.5 percent). This is no surprise given women largely occupy industries hit hardest by the pandemic: accommodations and food services industry and the health care and social assistance industry.
A separate household survey found that women of color make up a disproportionate share of workers in both industries: 24.3 percent and 30.3 percent. Additionally, within the domestic worker industry, there are almost 2.5 million workers—most of whom are Latinas—who live below twice the poverty line and have experienced extreme job loss. In a recent survey, half of domestic workers reported lack of access to medical care, which puts them at even greater risk if they or their family contracts coronavirus.
New research from LeanIn.Org shows that women are experiencing severe stress and burnout as a result of intensified work and financial and family pressure. Women are now spending 71 hours per week—or 20 more hours per week than men—on housework and caregiving, in addition to responsibilities resulting from the pandemic. This is the equivalent of working nearly two full-time jobs before starting actual paid employment. When broken down, women are spending an average of 7.4 more hours per week than men on childcare (39.8 hours vs. 32.4 hours), 5.3 more hours caring for elderly or sick relatives (10.4 hours vs. 5.1 hours), and least 7 more hours than men on housework (57 percent of women are spending 21 hours or more, while 60 percent of men are spending 14 hours or less).
As a result, women are more likely than men to experience a racing heartbeat (25 percent vs. 11 percent) and trouble sleeping (52 percent vs. 32 percent). Black women are more likely than Black men to worry that they won’t be able to pay for essentials in the next few months. And women who work full-time and have partners and children are more than twice as likely as men in the same situation to feel that they have more to do than they can possibly handle (31 percent vs. 13 percent).
These burdens are even heavier for women of color and single mothers. Three-quarters of Black women and Latinas are spending 21 or more hours on housework than white women. Latinas and Black women are also spending an average of 4 to 12 more hours per week on child care than white women, and 15 to 20 more hours per week caring for elderly or sick relatives. This aligns with the fact that households of color are more likely than white households to be multi-generational and more likely to have both elder and child care responsibilities as is the case with over half of Black caregivers.
Similarly, 81 percent of single mothers are spending more time on housework than women overall (62 percent). Single mothers are also spending an average of 7 more hours per week on child care than women overall, and 16 more hours per week caring for elderly or sick relatives.
With these severe pressures–lack of caregiving options as schools, child care providers, and adult centers remain closed—and a possible second wave of coronavirus, women will continue to struggle to balance work and family responsibilities. The longer these issues persist, the more likely women will be forced to leave the labor force, an impact that would be most severe for women of color and single mothers, many of whom happen to be both. And with women dropping out of the labor force, there is danger of prolonging the economic downturn and setting back a whole generation of women who occupied half of the U.S. workforce before the pandemic hit.
Making it out of this crisis and restarting our economy will consequently require maintaining women’s work-life balance and workforce participation.