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What happens when women leave the workforce? Hear from an economist and laid off worker

Vojtech Okenka

COVID-19 has magnified and intensified so many of our society’s social and economic injustices. While many of these problems have been around for as long as the systems themselves, the complete upending of “normal” life brought on by the pandemic has left many people more acutely aware. When it comes to job loss, it is women, specifically women of color, who have been hit the hardest.

Claudette Pointer is one of those women. She’s a resident of southeast Michigan, and pre- pandemic, she was working as a manager at a staffing agency. When she was hired years ago, her pay was $10.75 an hour. As she worked her way up, so did her pay rate; by February 2020, she was making $21 an hour.

“Life started looking so grand for me. I was able to pay, you know, my bills pretty much out of one check. And so it was. I started living more of a comfortable life and then, all of the sudden COVID hit,” Pointer said. “And then of course, my company laid a lot of the managers, pretty much all of the managers off and then I had to seek unemployment.”

Pointer called it a “slap in the face,” to lose economic security so quickly after securing it.

Betsey Stevenson is a labor economist and professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. Situations like Pointers, which Stevenson called “heartbreaking,” provide a picture of this issue that is affecting so many of Michigan’s hardworking women.

What’s especially difficult about Pointer’s situation, Stevenson said, is that Pointer will likely have to start back at square one.

“What happens when people lose their job is, of course they lose their current income, but they also tend to fall behind,” Stevenson said. “She’s not very likely to get hired back at $21 an hour. She may end up finding a job, if she’s lucky at $15 or $16 an hour. So her story, her journey of loss, isn’t even over yet.”

Stevenson said this isn’t uncommon for people who lose work, especially at lower incomes, and that it isn’t going to magically change after COVID-19 is under control. In 2019 and early 2020, many economists, Stevenson noted, were excited that the gender wage gap, which left many women making substantially less money than their male counterparts, was gradually closing. This was due to women being more educated and getting degrees that led to higher paying jobs. It was also attributed to the fact that women were working more and longer for the same company, like Pointer, which allowed for gradually increasing wages.

In fact, in December of 2019, women held more than 50 percent of jobs, something Stevenson remembers talking to NPR about in January 2020.

“I said, ‘I cannot imagine what would dislodge women from this point of ascendency that they’re currently at,’ I couldn’t imagine it!” Stevenson said. “I couldn’t imagine a global pandemic that would target in-person jobs.”

The shutdown of in-person jobs holds the key to understanding the reason women are so pointedly affected. Stevenson notes that the majority of jobs in the United States economy are in-person and service jobs, and who represents the majority of workers in those industries? Women.

In the beginning of the pandemic, the government provided increased aid in the form of unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and increases in government services like SNAP benefits. However, many people, like Pointer, had never felt the need to apply for public aid before COVID-19, and weren't accustomed to seeking government help. It took her until last week to fully tap into food and utility assistance that was available early on. She said she went through most of the pandemic “with very little.”

“I made enough money where I didn’t have to use those particular services,” said Claudette. “So here, dealing with COVID now, none of that clicked in my head to sign up for any of that until one of my girlfriends reached out to me and said, ‘are you receiving food stamps?’ because I was calling and asking for someone to help me get food at the time,” Pointer said. “I said ‘no, I never even thought to do it.’”

Stevenson said Pointer’s story reflects something much larger than one woman’s experience. She said it highlights the fallacy of all this hand wringing done by politicians about misuse and abuse of aid.

“We’re not done with COVID, we’re not done with the pain of it and we do need to be supporting families right now,” Stevenson said. “People don’t want to be on benefits if they don’t have to be, what they want is to be able to eat and put food on the table and this recession like no other that I’ve ever seen, has disproportionately hit people at the bottom of the income distribution, while people at the top of the income distribution have had very little pain in terms of loss of income.”

Stevenson described a “savings glut” for those who make more money because they don’t have vacations or restaurant dinners to spend it on, while those at the bottom are burning through their savings.

As more vaccines continue to herald the end of the pandemic and maybe this economic crisis, Stevenson said it’s important that the recovery efforts focus on helping women who have been hit the hardest and remedying their losses.

“Women will come back; I think the big question is what happens to the individual women who have really been hurt by COVID," said Stevenson. "How do we make it so that we can get Claudette back to $21 an hour? I think that’s where we really have to be focused, because otherwise, you could go back and interview Claudette in three or four years and find out that she hasn’t still fully recovered from COVID. And that’s a real tragedy.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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