While COVID-19 is having wide-ranging impacts on every corner of our society, no one is more impacted by this crisis than women, particularly women of color. Women dominate the industries most affected by the pandemic, including making up two-thirds of frontline workers in West Virginia and the majority of employees in industries who’ve seen job losses across our state and the country. At the same time that women are dealing with the economic crisis, they are also bearing the bulk of household and care work.
Prior to COVID-19, women spent 37 percent more time on unpaid care work than men. Now, with the loss of normal care structures like schools and day cares continuing even as our economy begins to reopen, women are bearing an even larger share of household and care work, making it difficult for them to balance care responsibilities and work or to even return to their jobs at all. This challenge- how to financially provide for their families and to care for them- is particularly difficult for single moms and women-headed households.
In the month of April, West Virginia lost an estimated 90,100 jobs, with the majority of losses concentrated in the service-providing sector. The state’s unemployment rate climbed to 15.2 percent, with jobs numbers the lowest seen in thirty years.
Diving deeper into the job loss numbers, among the industries most impacted were food services, health care, and retail trade, all sectors dominated by women. This mirrors what is happening at the national level, where women are bearing the majority (55 percent) of job losses. While the national unemployment rate went from 3.5 percent in February to 14.7 percent in April for all workers, the unemployment rate for women was nearly three percentage points higher than men in April, after being nearly identical prior to the crisis.
The disproportionate impact of job losses on women impacts men and children as well. In West Virginia, 51.7 percent of households have a bread-winner mother, meaning she contributes at least 40 percent of the earnings in the household. Nationally 79 percent of black mothers and 49.1 percent of Latina mothers are breadwinners.
West Virginia continues to press forward on reopening businesses, even as it is unclear when public schools will reopen or when families will feel safe sending their children to formal or informal child care.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis our care system was broken, and this crisis is only exacerbating existing problems. In West Virginia, there were 3.27 children for every child care slot before COVID-19, and an analysis suggests that the state is at risk of losing 56 percent of its child care centers without federal support, meaning that there would be 7.43 children for every child care slot.
The shortage of available slots does not even begin to take into account whether or not families can afford to enroll their children. The average annual cost for an child in a full-time child care center in West Virginia is nearly $8,000. For a West Virginia family with one infant and one four year old, the annual price of child care averages $15,990 or 29 percent of the median family income in 2017.
A lack of child care access and affordability impacted women’s ability to work long before COVID-19. Nine out of ten workers who report that they are working part time due to child care are women. Part-time work often pays low wages, comes without benefits like health insurance and paid sick days, and involves irregular work hours. In a pandemic, the work is even more tenuous, as it often involves client-facing positions, which were significantly impacted by job losses and which can be particularly dangerous for workers who are being called back as the state reopens.
Telework has been an option for some workers trying to balance family and work, but it is inaccessible to many. Higher-wage workers are six times more likely to be able to work from home as lower-wage workers. Less than one in five black workers and one in six Hispanic workers can telework.
COVID-19 has exposed that we have long had a broken care system with deep racial and gender inequalities.
Women, and particularly women of color, face losing their gains made in the workforce over decades. At the beginning of 2020, women made up more than half of all workers nationally, but since the pandemic began, their share has dropped to 49.2 percent of the workforce.
Policies that would help ease the choice that many women and families are currently facing between caring for their families or financially providing for them include ensuring access to quality, affordable child care, passing paid family and medical leave and paid sick days for all workers, raising the minimum wage for all workers, and implementing fair scheduling and job flexibility provisions for all.