Spring 2021

The pandemic’s toll on women

iStock photo: Kanawa_Studio

Christina Ewig wasn’t surprised to learn that more women than men—and especially more women of color—lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were seeing restaurants, hair salons, and other places that had a large concentration of female workers close,” says Ewig, who directs the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy in the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

But she had a hunch the unemployment figures only told part of the story. With financial support from the Carlson Family Foundation, she and two graduate students spent four months scouring state unemployment data and interviewing representatives from labor unions and organizations that represented various racial and ethnic communities. “We wanted to find out what was behind the numbers,” she says. “What sort of support were women reaching out for? Where did they need support but didn’t get it?”

Double whammy

The team discovered that female workers faced what Ewig calls “dual vulnerability.” Not only were they more likely than men to be laid off, but also a high percentage of Asian, Native American, and Somali women in particular worked essential jobs that put them at risk of contracting the virus. “One of the biggest industries that employs women is health care—hospitals, long-term care,” she says.

Their research also yielded some surprises and insights. For example, job loss figures were about equal for Black women and Black men—a finding Ewig admits they can’t explain.

They also learned through interviews that:

  • Because many Native American, Hmong, and Somali women live in multigenerational homes, they face additional challenges. “There’s the stress of knowing they have to work to support their family, but there’s also great fear among these workers of bringing the virus home to an elder,” Ewig says.
  • Undocumented workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits even if they have a tax identification number and pay into the unemployment system. “Unemployment numbers may measure claims, but they don’t measure all of the people who are out of work,” she says.
  • Child care was a major stressor. In addition to some day care centers closing, “there was a lot of trepidation about sending preschool children to day care,” she says. “Parents didn’t know what impact the virus would have on kids.” Meanwhile, parents of school-aged children faced new challenges of helping their kids navigate online schooling.
  • Labor unions were able to help certain workers. Ewig says the Service Employees International Union, which represents some hospital and nursing home staff, negotiated with employers to allow long-term care workers to work from one location instead of moving between several, thus reducing the risk of virus transmission. This and other unions also worked to increase access to personal protective equipment for members.

Since the report was published in December, Ewig has been presenting her findings to state and federal lawmakers and community organizations. “We need longer-term thinking about how to strengthen our social supports, and in turn our society, to be able to better manage a future pandemic,” she says.