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Essential and Expendable: Gendered Labor in the Coronavirus Crisis

photo of Tobias Neely
Jun 3 2020

Since March 2020, over 33 million people in the United State have filed jobless claims. When 42 states required all but essential workers to stay home, mass furloughs and layoffs ensued and unemployment surged from 4.4% to 14.7%. The unemployment rate is predicted to reach 16%—the highest since the Great Depression—and more than a quarter of the work force is jobless in many states. 

Pundits often call economic crashes “mancessions” because the jobs lost are in fields traditionally dominated by men like construction and manufacturing. But the current crisis is on a path to worsen social inequality—whether it be gender, racial, class, nationality, disability, or other forms of inequality. And the crisis is laying bare the fault lines among workers that have existed for a long time.

In April, women’s unemployment reached 16.2%—almost three points higher than men’s, and women accounted for 55% of job losses. Latinx women have been the hardest hit with unemployment rates at 20.2%, compared to 16.4% for Black women, 15% for White women, and 14.5% for Asian American women. Black and Latinx women have lost their jobs at higher rates because they tend to be concentrated in insecure, low-wage service sector jobs, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This is because of structural inequalities in access to higher education and more secure, better-paying jobs.

Women account for two-thirds of workers who make less than $11 an hour, and women of color are overrepresented in these jobs. For example, 90% of domestic care workers are women, and women of color and immigrants compose 58% and 35% respectively of workers in these fields. During “good” times, these workers earn only $10 an hour on average ($7 lower than the average for all workers). This gives them little safety net to survive the crisis’s unemployment rate of nearly 75% for domestic laborers. 

Women have been let go at higher rates than men and at higher rates than their share of employment. In good times and bad times, women’s labor has been deemed more expendable. 

In general, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in sectors with severe job loss—hospitality, leisure, education, healthcare, and retail—women have been let go at higher rates than men and at higher rates than their share of employment. In good times and bad times, women’s labor has been deemed more expendable.

While some women have been let go, others have been called essential and “heroic,” as though going to work were a brave “choice.” Over half of family care doctors, nurses, health aides, pharmacists, and grocery store clerks are women. Calling these women heroes actually discounts the value of their labor: A “hero” does things because they are a hero, rather than for pay. Thus, the hero’s work cannot be fairly compensated, which legitimizes that it’s not. The work typically done by women is being simultaneously dismissed and valorized during the current crisis. 

Women employed in low-wage service jobs and healthcare experience the declining protections and stagnant wages that the majority of workers face in today’s economy. At the same time, a smaller segment of the labor force—mostly upper-middle-class White men—have experienced considerable wage growth in jobs with affordable healthcare, remote work accommodations, paid time off, and job security. To many, this may seem like a new development made apparent by the crisis, but it reflects entrenched inequalities and a broad transformation in our work force. Social inequality is a persistent feature of the U.S. economy; that is, systems of inequality based on gender, race, nationality, sexuality, disability, and social class, among others structure who gets access to jobs, pay, and benefits. 

When the price of goods and services are low, capitalist profit stems from exploiting labor. This often occurs by devaluing certain groups of workers on the basis of sexuality, gender, race, and class; for example, nail salon workers who are predominantly women of color who are forced to rely on tips to make even minimum wage. The relationship between capital and inequality has meant that for a majority of workers, employment has long been insecure and precarious. But in recent years, workers who previously had secure jobs and a safety net have experienced an erosion of these privileges, which has made the perceptions of insecurity more widespread and apparent to those throughout the class ladder

Job Polarization and Precarious Working Conditions

Over the past 40 years, the U.S. labor market has undergone fundamental structural changes. Since the late 1970s, the rise of globalization, deregulation, digitization, and financial expansion has led executives to prioritize boosting dividends for shareholders, which includes themselves, over protecting their employees. Twenty-first century firms feature ongoing restructuring, frequent downsizing, and flexible scheduling, making work more unpredictable and precarious for many workers. 

In Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance, Ken-Hou Lin and I show how this shift in corporate governance accelerated the decline of unions, diminished the bargaining power of workers, and led to greater income and wealth inequality. As a result, financial investors have experienced exceedingly high wage growth. Meanwhile, the working and middle class has taken on an increasingly high debt burden to pay the bills and the poor are largely denied access to credit or living wages. Those who struggle to make ends meet are disproportionately people of color and especially families headed by women. 

Racial, gendered, and social inequality have long existed, but these current trends are also a product of our time. In the so-called “golden age” of capitalism following World War II, many workers could expect to spend their working lives with a single employer. In return for their loyalty, the employer rewarded employees with incremental promotions up a set career ladder, increases in wages, and growing retirement pensions. 

However, these benefits were primarily restricted to a select group: mostly White men employed by large, oligopolistic firms. These men were paid living wages because it was assumed they had a wife providing unpaid care work at home. This arrangement was largely denied to families of color who faced rampant employment discrimination, which forced them to take jobs with low pay and few protections and made them reliant on two incomes. For this reason, Black women worked at much higher rates than White women in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the absence of sick or parental leave, health crises can push workers out of the labor force when they struggle to meet unrealistic demands in a culture of overwork. 

Union members and employers excluded women and racialized minority men from receiving “the family wage”; that is, enough earnings to support an entire family. The few jobs that were open to women were designed to be temporary or part-time, with low wages, few benefits, little security, and limited opportunities for advancement. And when White women started to make inroads into healthcare and white-collar jobs, their advancement was—and often still is—privileged over that of women of color, who continued to be funneled into jobs with less desirable tasks, such as the “dirty work” entailed in working as nurse’s aides, cleaners, janitors, and domestic workers.

Today, as employment has become more insecure and unequal throughout the labor market, the privileges once enjoyed by White men have also been eroded. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing, and subcontracting have eliminated many jobs in manufacturing. Job growth has been concentrated in the service sector, where many jobs are temporary and part-time. The decline of working conditions and wages in jobs that were once stable happened at the moment when women and racialized minority men finally started to make inroads into jobs that paid living wages.

Alongside the simultaneous growth in the low- and high-wage sectors has been the emergence of polarized ideals for workers: the shift worker who overworks because of the need to balance multiple jobs with on-demand scheduling and the portfolio worker in a salaried job who is expected to work around the clock. The former is typically gender-typed as women’s work, and women of color are overrepresented in these jobs. White men disproportionately do the latter work. 

Both worker ideals reflect a shift from a more collective work arrangement to one that is individually oriented, which transfers the risks of employment from employers to workers. Workers now expect shorter tenures at a given job because the conditions are either too abysmal to endure or the employer embarks in cycles of rapid growth followed by layoffs to boost the company’s shareholder value. The fact that health insurance is tied to employment magnifies these risks. In the absence of sick or parental leave, health crises can push workers out of the labor force when they struggle to meet unrealistic demands in a culture of overwork

The Coronavirus Pandemic

With this historical perspective in mind, it comes as no surprise that the coronavirus crisis first hit the service sector and then threatened professional and public-sector jobs previously considered to be more stable and safe. Because of this transformation in the labor force, workers have carried an uneven burden of the risks of employment, which are exacerbated by the negative impacts of the crisis.

Specifically which workers have been systematically overburdened directly corresponds to the workers most at risk to catch the new coronavirus. One-third of jobs held by women are deemed “essential.” Women compose 52% of frontline workers, including 9 out of 10 nurses and nursing assistants and two-thirds of checkout workers at grocery stores and pharmacies. As of mid-April, 9,000 healthcare workers had caught the virus, and three-quarters of those were women. 

One study of a densely populated neighborhood in San Francisco found that 90% of those who tested positive were frontline workers, 89% earned less than $50,000 a year, and 95% were Latinx. While men made up the majority of positive tests in that study, the high numbers of women of color who work in frontline jobs nationwide puts them at great risk. And the consequences of systemic racism—both the lack of access to jobs that can be done remotely as well as the chronic stress endured that leads to racial health disparities—means that Black and Latinx populations are the most vulnerable to serious cases and fatalities from the virus.

Among middle class workers, men are likelier to work in jobs that can be remote (28% relative to 22%). Women who can continue to work remotely—who are disproportionately White, Asian American, and middle or upper middle class—must perform both paid work and care work at home.

Many of these women have few options to take paid leave if they or their loved ones fall ill. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid leave during the pandemic, yet excludes emergency responders and healthcare providers, including workers at doctor’s offices, hospitals, clinics, medical schools, health departments, nursing homes, home health care providers, medical laboratories, and pharmacies. Many women have been left out of this support.

As states begin opening up, the pandemic “caste system” will only be further exacerbated, as the wealthy retreat to secluded vacation homes, the middle class work remotely while homeschooling, and the working class are forced to keep the economy running and care for children at the same. This system has gendered dimensions as well. Among middle class workers, men are likelier to work in jobs that can be remote (28% relative to 22%). Women who can continue to work remotely—who are disproportionately White, Asian American, and middle or upper middle class—must perform both paid work and care work at home. One survey found that 14% of women had considered quitting their jobs because of the intensified parenting demands from school closures—a burden unevenly placed on mothers.

Among the working class, women are both more likely to work in person, have lower-earning jobs, and be the primary breadwinner, as one-fifth of children live with a solo mother. This is most pronounced for Black mothers, 60% of whom are single mother breadwinners. Only 20% of Black workers can work remotely, relative to 30% of White workers and 37% of Asian American workers. Black women, in particular, are overrepresented in home care work, which is unlikely to have robust employment protections. These women will continue to work a double shift at the workplace and at home, all while risking exposing themselves and their families.

Lastly, many women who return to work in-person are likely to have inadequate access to protective gear, hazard pay, or childcare. Working class women in particular will have few alternatives to returning to work. For those who have a job to return to, if they quit out of safety concerns, they will give up access to unemployment benefits. 

These types of hardship demonstrate that what women need is not universal. Women who have low-wage jobs, are frontline workers, parent alone, lack citizenship rights, have adverse health, lack sufficient healthcare, and experience homelessness have distinct problems that warrant consideration. 

An Opportunity for Change? 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Tracing the impacts of the coronavirus crisis for workers certainly shows how inequality becomes entrenched. But it also highlights the possibility for an alternative path. How can we transform systems of inequality in our society? 

Even though inequality is on a path to worsen, we could use this moment to create lasting change. As Raewyn Connell has theorized, crises and crashes expose cracks in the systems upholding social inequality. The coronavirus crisis weakens the foundations of these interlocking systems of inequality and provides an opportunity for us to imagine feminist alternatives to the prevailing order.

Even though inequality is on a path to worsen, we could use this moment to create lasting change. As Raewyn Connell has theorized, crises and crashes expose cracks in the systems upholding social inequality. The coronavirus crisis weakens the foundations of these interlocking systems of inequality and provides an opportunity for us to imagine feminist alternatives to the prevailing order.

Intersectionality provides the key to the way forward, because it reveals how some women’s fortunes are contingent on other women’s misfortunes. A solution for one group of women could have adverse consequences for others. For example, there is limited access to childcare, so it is largely a privilege restricted to the middle and upper class. The labor market gains of class-privileged women—who are predominantly White and Asian American—have come at the exploitation of women who perform domestic labor, disproportionately women of color. But requiring that employers raise wages, improve benefits, and provide paid time off for care workers risks making these services inaccessible to middle class women and decreases demand for care work. Thus, we need to revalue care work and more equally distribute resources and benefits at the society rather than employer level. 

U.S. firms have responded to the current crisis with mass layoffs and furloughs. But it did not have to be like that. Nearly all European countries have prevented widespread job loss by reimbursing workers’ income directly through employers rather than passing down one-time payments. In addition to policies that support full employment, we also need to transform the incentives of American firms so that they consider the interests of broader corporate stakeholders, not just shareholders. Workers should have a bigger voice in decisions made at work. They should hold power on boards of directors, and they should be included in the profits that some are making off the current crisis

We also must transform how we value and organize work. As Christine Williams and I have argued, we need to value paid work less and other facets of life more. Black feminist thought has long identified the importance of defining one’s worth outside of paid labor, which does not provide the path to liberation under capitalism. Of the current crisis, Aliya Hamid Rao has shown the dangers of placing one’s sense of identity in employment and the need to decouple moral worth from one’s job. While feminist and anti-racist organizers have long championed valuing life beyond paid employment, the current moment may inspire mainstream audiences to heed these calls. 

By reducing economic inequality, bolstering workers’ safety nets, and reducing shareholder and employer power, we can redistribute time and money to workers. All workers need to care for themselves and their loved ones right now. Accomplishing this requires we fundamentally address the financial incentives and policies that have led to rising inequality and declining worker power. It also requires recognizing worker’s social value and worth, especially those who give care to other people. Many of these people are children who will go on to become future workers or the sick who will one day return to work. We owe it to everyone to imagine a more viable way of life for all.

 

Tobias Neely is assistant professor in the Department of Organization at Copenhagen Business School, an affiliated postdoctoral researcher at Stanford’s VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, and a former Clayman Postdoctoral Fellow (2017-2019).

 

 

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identifies root causes of barriers,
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