Amid pandemic job losses, women in workforce bear disproportionate burden

One of the hardest parts about quarantine for Shelby Awillett was that her family could not see her 10-month-old son, Jack.

“Developmental-wise, between seven and nine and a half months, he changed so much. It was so hard that I wasn’t able to share that other than like, Facebook,” Awillet said. “His grandparents and his cousins are missing out on him standing up and doing all these huge things that happen in the first year.”

But it was also hard, because having to stay home is not the norm for Awillett, who works as a hairstylist in Independence. She was one of the thousands of Missouri women who became unemployed as a result of the pandemic.

While the coronavirus has affected everyone, women are experiencing an outsized impact from the virus. Anne Wrinkler, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said this is part of what makes this recession different from others.

“Unlike past recessions, often called man-cessions, in this one women’s unemployment rate rose far more than men’s,” Wrinkler said.

This is because many of the industries hit hardest by COVID-19, like salon work, are made up mostly of women. As a result, rates of women applying for unemployment have shot up.

In Missouri, about 4,000 more men were unemployed than women in March, but in April, about 26,000 more women were unemployed than men, according to Missouri Department of Labor data. This trend has continued through May and June.

Wrinkler said this can be important because evidence from prior recessions shows that the negative effects on wages can last for a long time.

“More women have lost jobs, and their careers are disproportionately suffering,” Wrinkler said. “Job loss has significant long-term economic consequences, not just lost current earnings.”

For women, this could have compounded effects because they may already be facing lower wages than their male counterparts. For example, the average salary for male registered nurses in Missouri is about $62,000, while the average salary for female registered nurses is about $48,000 — a 23% difference, according to data compiled by the Women’s Foundation.

This is something Nikko Farmer has been noticing for a long time, over the course of her 20-year career as a nurse.

“(Men) move up in the establishment faster. They have more of the charge duties and less of the direct patient care duties,” Farmer said. “So they absolutely do better, and they can earn a higher wage quicker with that work.”

Now, Farmer works as an auditor and runs her own home health business. She typically clocks in an 80-hour week between the two jobs, though she does not take a paycheck from her home health business. She said she does that work because she cares about it.

“I think it’s just so fulfilling to impact my community by, one, giving great care, and then, two, being able to put people to work that enjoy doing this job,” Farmer said.

But Farmer said she’s still seeing inequality crop up. She said she thinks the fact that personal care workers are almost always women contributes to the field remaining underpaid, and underappreciated, despite high demand.

Farmer had to scramble to find the protective equipment her staff needed once the pandemic hit, and she has had to buy at a much higher price than she usually would. The state pays Farmer for the patients her company cares for, but it will not cover the added costs from COVID-19.

And since the pandemic, some of the home health nurses have quit. Some of Farmer’s employees quit over fear of being exposed to the virus, and some because virus unemployment benefits would pay more than their jobs, Farmer said.

The average pay for home health aids is just over $11 an hour, but can span from minimum wage to just over $15 an hour, according to PayScale.

Farmer said she just cannot pay enough to incentivize the work, especially since COVID-19 increased the risk her employees would be facing every day. She said she wishes she could pay them more, and provide better benefits, but that there is not enough money to make it work.

Because Farmer’s business serves those on government insurance, the state pays her a standard wage per hour that workers care for patients, instead of being paid by the families.

“The little $15, $17, the state reimburses us is not enough. All of that money needs to go to the worker, but we still have to run the backend,” Farmer said. “If we don’t have a business, then we can’t pay people, but just the same you can’t pay quality caregivers. I mean, it’s to the point where they can make more working at McDonald’s.”

Though inequality in health care existed before the coronavirus, the pandemic has exacerbated problems facing the industry. Wendy Doyle, CEO of the Women’s Foundation, said it is important to address that now.

“These women are protecting and providing for us in times of need, but yet they’re being paid unfairly,” Doyle said. “So, for the same work — you know, women putting their lives on the line — we really need to be treating everyone fairly.”

Not all women are being rewarded the same for that risk. Women of color, like Farmer, face an even steeper pay disparity, and are less likely to have health care. The coronavirus has been infecting and killing Black people at a higher rate than white people, according to an APM Research Lab Study. Doyle said that women in rural communities also face a steeper pay disparity.

Fair pay is also important because women still do the majority of unpaid labor at home. On average, women currently spend 15 more hours on domestic labor each week than men, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group, and this can be a factor in pushing women out of the workforce, especially during COVID-19. Among married couples who work full time, women provide nearly 70% of child care during standard working hours, according to a recent study published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Shelby Awillet, a hairdresser in Independence, had to stop working for a time due to the pandemic. She also laments the disruption COVID-19 has caused to contact with extended family. | Courtesy of Shelby Awillet

Doyle said that women’s unemployment began to rise significantly once schools closed. She drew attention to the fact that if women are not being paid fairly at work, and then work significantly more at home, they are working in an unsustainable way. Wrinkler said kids being home could contribute to difficulty working.

“With stay-at-home orders, women are doing even more child care, and housework related to food prep, cleaning up, etc.,” Wrinkler said. “For those women who are employed and working from home, they are called upon to do the near-impossible task of remaining committed to their paid job and meeting the needs of their children. … The biggest burden is borne by single mothers.”

One such single mother is Samantha, who preferred to go by her first name. Samantha works in the St. Louis area as an audiologist and cares for her 2-year-old daughter.

Samantha has been lucky enough to stay employed through the pandemic, working at an office as well as owning two stores, but everything she makes comes from commission. Business has dropped significantly, so she is not making anywhere close to what she usually does.

“I am on 100% full commission, so if there’s not people coming in the door then I’m not making money,” Samantha said. “And obviously, you know, I don’t have a husband to kind of hold the fort down financially. So, I never got scared, but it was — it was tight.”

Because of her drop in earnings, Samantha decided not to renew her lease at her previous home. COVID-19 made her reconsider her finances, especially because her daughter has a health condition that causes the household to have regularly high levels of expenses. Though her daughter’s father does help out financially, Samantha said she felt she could not spend so much on a home when her income was so unpredictable. The threat to her income has also caused her to doubt her current occupation.

“My income is so unsteady, I never really know what I’m going to make every month, except I have a gut feeling I’m going to be just fine,” Samantha said. “But I never really know for certain. I think after having a child, too, your motives kind of change.”

Samantha said she would like to be employed in an industry where she could make a reliable paycheck but with more flexibility surrounding hours, to allow her to spend more time with her daughter.

Samantha was enrolled in a audiology doctoral program when she found out she was pregnant, and decided to leave. The pandemic has prompted her to consider going back to school, but now she would have to take care of her daughter, work full time and attend class — a difficult load to juggle.

Though the pandemic is hurting Samantha’s finances now, it could help her — or women like her — in the long run, Doyle said.

Doyle is optimistic that the pandemic will ultimately expand opportunities for women. With many working from home and child care legislation being expanded, two of the largest barriers to women working could be on the way out. These are also two things that could help Samantha get back to school.

“One of the benefits of the federal stimulus package for COVID-19 was a paid family medical leave option for all employers to implement, Doyle said. “But this is really going to be a pivot point for just the world in general. … We’ve learned that in remote work, Zoom meetings, you can still have great productivity and get results for the organization, so I do think we’re at this moment in time we’re going to see our office working culture looking really differently in a positive way for women.”

But Wrinkler does not feel quite as optimistic. She said that most of the economic effects on the workforce will likely be negative, though there is a possibility for some positive changes.

Awillett is back to working in the salon now, and she also thinks the coronavirus has changed some things, specifically for those that work in service jobs. Before the virus, Awillet said that service was an industry that could lead to overwork in an effort to please clients.

“(Shutdowns) kind of made you take a step back from something that you’re used to doing all the time, and really think about what’s best for me, and what would be good for my life,” Awillett said. “Do they want to work more or they want to educate more or they want to slow down and travel more and take more time for themselves, and less about really jumping through hoops for the client.”

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