Denise Frederick hasn’t stopped working since the pandemic began. But the nanny and home carer in New York City has also seen her pay cut in both jobs and she is uncertain about how long she will have either with the coronavirus outbreak far from under control.
Like many women, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has hit Frederick hard. For the first time in history, the US is in a “shecession” – an economic downturn where job and income losses are affecting women more than men.
The family Frederick worked for left the city in the early days of the outbreak, but continued to pay her normally until last month when they cut her pay to hire a nanny where they are staying. They don’t know if they will return to the city before her contract expires at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Frederick’s pay was cut at her home carer job, which she has commuted to on the bus and subway since the pandemic began and where she has to pay for her own personal protective equipment (PPE).
Frederick, a single mother, moved from St Lucia four years ago to fulfill a life goal: to put her 19-year-old daughter through college. “I keep saying to her, focus on school, let me figure out where the next meal is going to come from, let me figure out how the bills are going to get paid, because I don’t want her to get stressed out about me and then it’s affecting her grades,” Frederick said.
In the Great Recession, men lost twice as many jobs as women. But from February to May, 11.5 million women lost their jobs compared with 9 million men because of business closures intended to stop the spread of Covid-19. By the end of April, women’s job losses had erased a decade of employment gains.
The staggering figures have underlined the changing nature of the workforce and brought into focus the overlooked issues attached to that shift. Women, especially women of color, are more vulnerable to sudden losses of income because of the gender pay gap and are more dependent on childcare and school to be able to work.
C Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), said: “We didn’t do enough in the 2008 recession to make sure there was an even recovery, and what I am hoping this time around is that we learn those hard lessons and we make sure the communities who are most impacted, that there are targeted programs to make sure they are able to recover successfully.”
In this economic crisis, job losses have shot across industries where women, particularly Black and Latina women, held a disproportionate number of jobs, such as hospitality, leisure and education.
Hispanic women experienced the steepest decline in unemployment, 21%, in this recession, though their employment was essentially unchanged in the Great Recession. When employment figures rebounded slightly in May, they did so for every population except Black women, one in six of whom were unemployed that month, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.
Women gained the majority of jobs between early May and early June, but are still farther from pre-coronavirus employment levels compared with men, according to an IWPR analysis.
Those improvements were not reflected in childcare services, where employment is still a quarter below pre-pandemic levels. With children possibly going to school remotely in the fall, this is a problem for women inside and outside the sector, because they tend to be the primary caregiver for children in heterosexual couples.
“Many of the challenges that are facing women of color workers, issues around childcare, issues around lower wages, issues of lack of flexibility and lack of job security, have all been made worst by the pandemic,” Mason said. “So the situation for women who were struggling before the pandemic has only gotten worse.”
There is also the question of when childcare, hospitality and leisure jobs will return. More than 148,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US and the country has failed to put in place measures which have helped other countries control outbreaks.
At least 70% of Black, immigrant domestic workers like Frederick have either lost their jobs or had a cut in pay or hours, according to a survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Institute for Policy Studies. Of the 800 people surveyed from late May to early June, 65% said they were worried or at risk of being evicted or having a utility shut off in the next three months.
But Frederick is optimistic this desperate situation has given people a greater awareness for what their nannies are responsible for each day. Frederick said some of her friends have received frantic calls from the families they used to work for saying: “I don’t know how you do it.”
Frederick said: “It has shown some of the employers that nannies are very beneficial to them and maybe, just maybe, helped them realize that when a nanny comes to an interview and says ‘look, my rate is ’, they should be given the rate they are asking for because it’s a lot of work.”
Frederick is one of many who have identified an opportunity in this crisis for women to seize more rights because problems made worse by the pandemic, such as low wages, have become impossible to ignore.
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeine, the executive director and co-founder of MomsRising, a group which advocates for women’s and family issues, said: “The cracks in our system that were here before the pandemic have now become catastrophes and we absolutely need every member of Congress to focus on what actually fuels our economy and the health of our nation.”
Congress in March passed the unusually generous Cares Act, a stimulus package which increased unemployment insurance by an extra 0 a week. At an hour, that is equivalent to what unions have been fighting to become the federal minimum wage. And while the US is one of the only countries that does not mandate paid sick leave, workers are now eligible for it because of Covid-19.
Mason, of IWPR, said discussions about things such as paid sick leave were on the sidelines in February, when coronavirus was bubbling under the surface. But now that people have lived with an expanded social safety net, it’s an opportunity to institutionalize more robust social support programs.
“I’m optimistic about the possibility of creating a more equitable economy and bringing some of the issues that many women and families had to deal with by themselves so it was seen as an individual issue, not a structural, institutional issue,” Mason said. “And what we’re realizing now is that what is happening now is the result of broken systems that were not working for the majority of Americans and people.”
This article was amended on 4 August 2020 to correct a fact about primary caregivers.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010