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Labor Department delivers dismal job market news for women

The job market remains weak (Source: Washington Post)) The job market remains weak (Source: Washington Post))

Once again, the monthly jobs report paints a decidedly mixed, if not downright dismal, picture for women.

First, the good news.

About 99,000 more women had a job in February than in January, according to the Department of Labor. After the January jobs report showed that women lost 24,000 jobs that month, that’s pretty good news. More than 66 million women over age 20 now have a job.

Now, the mixed news.

Most of these new jobs don’t pay very well. They’re in occupations like leisure and hospitality, where workers make about $350 a week, rather than in high-paying jobs like construction, where workers make about $1,000 a week.  On an annual basis, workers in restaurant, fast food, and food preparation — three areas showing consistent job growth — generally make around $20,000 a year.

The retail sector shows mixed news for women.  Retail is a major source of employment for women, who make up about half of the retail labor force, but retail jobs are low-paying. Moreover, after peaking in December, the retail sector shrank again in February.

The unemployment rate gave a neutral signal — it remained at 5.9 percent for women age 20 and over.

Finally, the bad news.

The job market trends for women are pretty dismal, according to Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center.

“If you compare annual average employment in 2009, when the recovery started, and 2013, 35 percent of women’s net employment growth was in the 10 largest low-wage occupations,” Entmacher said, referring to the NWLC’s calculations. She says these jobs typically pay less than $10.10 per hour.

In addition, long-term unemployment remains a real problem in the economy. Overall, 3.8 million people haven’t worked in more than six months. That number rose by 200,000 in one month.

This is a real problem for women. Despite the loss of federal long-term unemployment benefits at the end of 2013, the share of adult women age 20 and older who have been out of work for more than six months rose to 37.7 percent in February from 34.8 percent in January.

Entmacher wants Congress to do something about the economic plight of these workers.

“The refusal of some in Congress to extend emergency unemployment insurance benefits has left two million jobless workers and their families without this vital lifeline. Congress needs to restore unemployment benefits—now,” she said.

Given these mixed signals, the experts at the National Women’s Law Center view the job market for women as decidedly in the hands of Congress. Renewing unemployment insurance will inject money into the economy and improve the job market, according to their analysis. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would create more demand and provide a particular boost for women, who make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers, according to the NWLC.

Senate Democrats have tried to alleviate this situation. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has tried several times to restore long-term unemployment insurance benefits, with the most recent attempt occurring on Tuesday, but each time has failed to secure enough votes.

Economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute has a way to try and make sense of the mixed signals from the labor report. She has a data point that she refers to as her “desert island” data, meaning that if she could take only one labor market measure to gauge the strength of the labor market, she’d put the employment to population (EPOP) ratio into her spreadsheet.

This measure gives a better impression of the trends in the labor market, according to Shierholz, because it doesn’t give the mixed signals that other, more commonly used figures, like the unemployment rate, do.

So, what’s the EPOP telling us about the state of the labor market for women these days?

As Shierholz explains that the picture for women is similar to that of men in this downturn in that “employment fell off a cliff between 2007 and 2010, and has made only modest improvement since then despite how much time has elapsed. Women have recouped just a little over a third of what they lost in the downturn.”

The chart shows these trends for women, men and overall. (The red line is for men, the green line is for women, and the blue line is the average of men and women.)

Employment-to-population ratio (Heidi Shierholz, Economic Policy Institute) Employment-to-population ratio (Heidi Shierholz, Economic Policy Institute)

So, what can we make of this latest mixed picture on jobs from the Labor Department? It’s unclear, at best, with some good, some bad, and some mixed news. One thing is clear, however: the U.S. economy has a long way to go before the American worker feels like the recession is over.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.

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