Business & Economy

Statistics show grim toll of pandemic on women’s economic health

A woman and her daughter bring home some free meals from a Burlington School District food distribution point in May 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Covid-19 pandemic could undo years of activists’ work in helping build up women’s workforce participation and income, panelists said at a Vermont Commission on Women legislative event Thursday.

Women have been leaving the workforce during the pandemic at four times the rate men are, said Cary Brown, the commission’s executive director. Because of the way the unemployment rate is calculated, “they are not counted in the unemployment numbers, which are stark enough,” Brown said on a Zoom meeting with lawmakers and others. “I am worried we are going to see decades of progress undone practically overnight.”

She said the pandemic is a reminder that women, far more often than men, leave their jobs to care for family members.

“The pandemic has shown us the structural inequities that were in place,” she said. “One is caring for family members and household labor, which has fallen disproportionately on women’s shoulders.”

The impact of the pandemic on women started becoming clear in autumn, when children began to return to online learning, or a mixture of online and in-school learning. 

While the employment numbers for both men and women that plunged last spring made a recovery in the summer, men’s and women’s employment started going in different directions in September.

Cary Brown
Cary Brown is the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

According to the Rand Corporation, by the end of September the labor participation rate for men without children at home was only 1 percentage point lower than it had been in January, before Covid-19 slammed the economy. 

Women without children and men with children saw a drop of less than 2 percentage points by the end of September, Rand said. But women with children saw a steep drop in August and September, and in late November were down 3.2 percentage points compared to January 2020.

More recently, an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center found that the economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, and all of them were jobs held by women. Women lost 156,000 jobs and men gained 16,000, the report said, citing the Bureau of Labor monthly jobs report.

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And unemployment numbers for Vermont — released the week of Jan. 4 — show 73% of the Vermonters who have lost their jobs since mid-November are women, according to the Vermont Commission on Women.

“This is a frightening time for our country and a frightening time for our state,” said former state legislator Kiah Morris, who became a commission member last month. Morris noted that many of the problems exacerbated by the pandemic disproportionately affect women, some of whom were impoverished before the spread of Covid-19.

“How does one access education when you have to make a choice between that gap of financial aid and putting food on the table?” she said.

Many women aren’t counted

The job-loss disparity between men and women is highest in Vermont, said University of Vermont economist Stephanie Seguino. That’s because many women in Vermont work in the service sector, which has been hit hard by sweeping business shutdowns or limits designed to minimize the spread of the virus.

Almost half the state’s job losses in December were in industries such as house cleaning, restaurants and home health, Seguino said.

“We see not only gender segregation but racial segregation as well,” she said. “In particular women of color are losing their jobs.”

Stephanie Seguino
Stephanie Seguino is an economics professor at the University of Vermont. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Black, Hispanic and Asian women in Vermont already tend to live in lower-income households, Seguino said, making them more vulnerable if they lose their jobs. She estimated 30,000 non-white people live in Vermont, making it difficult in a state with a population of about 625,000 to calculate the unemployment rate by race.

In the Department of Labor’s unemployment statistics, people are counted as unemployed only if they report they were actively looking for work in the last week.

“Many women have withdrawn from the labor force largely because of care responsibilities, so this is a form of hidden unemployment,” Seguino said. “It’s not so much that women were voluntarily leaving as they were shoved out of the labor force because of shuttered schools, because of lack of child care, because of pay disparities, lack of public transportation, lack of public policy that supports women and their care responsibilities.”

Child care is crucial

Many policymakers have said making child care more affordable and accessible would help. 

Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury and a member of the House Committee on Human Services, said that during the pandemic, lawmakers put about $50 million toward child care. Covid-19 has shown how critical child care is to maintaining the workforce, she said.

Theresa Wood
Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, is a member of the House Committee on Human Services. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“We’ll be spending a significant amount of time this year on further enhancing child care and trying to figure out how to pay for it,” Wood said.

In recent years, there has also been a push to compile more data on an array of populations and programs to help lawmakers decide where their priorities should lie. The University of Massachusetts is carrying out national research on the socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 on U.S. households; panel guests were asked to fill out the UMass survey to aid in data collection.

“Covid didn’t create any of these problems; it just exposed these problems,” said Lisa Senecal, chair of the Vermont Commission on Women.

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Anne Wallace Allen

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