The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women have been hit hardest by job losses in the pandemic. And it may only get worse.

Ilanne Dubois, a 36-year-old single mother who was laid off in mid-March, completes her grocery shopping in New York. (Michael Noble, Jr./For The Washington Post)

The last time Americans faced an economic crisis, it was called a “Mancession.” As millions of people lost their jobs in the Great Recession, 70 percent were men, many in construction and manufacturing.

This time, as job losses linked to the coronavirus pandemic dwarf what the country experienced in the 2007-2009 crisis, the heaviest toll is falling on women.

Waitresses, day-care workers, hairstylists, hotel maids and dental hygienists are among the 20.5 million people who watched their jobs vanish in April — the most devastating spike in unemployment since the Great Depression.

“I had a good rhythm going. I wasn’t rich, I couldn’t complain saying I was poor,” said Ilanne Dubois, a 36-year-old single mother on Long Island who worked as a waitress at a Manhattan hotel. “Now, all of that stability is gone. We’re falling into a hole.”

Women have never experienced an unemployment rate in the double digits since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting data by gender in 1948 — until now. At 16.2 percent, women’s unemployment in April was nearly three points higher than men’s, according to Labor Department rates released Friday. But a closer look at the numbers shows deeper disparities.

Not only are women overrepresented in some of the hardest-hit industries, such as leisure and hospitality, health care and education, but women — especially black and Hispanic women — lost jobs in those sectors at disproportionate rates.

Before the pandemic, women held 77 percent of the jobs in education and health services, but they account for 83 percent of the jobs lost in those sectors, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Women made up less than half of the retail trade workforce, but they experienced 61 percent of the retail job losses. Many of these women held some of the lowest-paying jobs — the cashiers, hotel clerks, office receptionists, hospital technicians, teachers’ aides.

U.S. unemployment rate soars to 14.7 percent, the worst since the Depression era

The pandemic has wiped out the job gains women made over the past decade, just months after women reached the majority of the paid U.S. workforce for only the second time in American history.

“How are we supposed to ever come back?” said Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “I think it’s going to take a really long time to even reach that point again. A lot of people are going to be stuck.”

Labor experts worry that even as states reopen, many workers, especially in leisure and hospitality, will continue to suffer cuts to hours, wages and tips. Low-wage workers, who are disproportionately female, will be the least likely to be rehired, economists say.

Over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in March. Here are some of their stories. (Video: The Washington Post)

Even when men experienced the greatest initial job losses during the Great Recession, women took much longer to recover. Between June 2009 and June 2011, women lost 281,000 jobs while men gained 805,000. Those losses were driven by public-sector job cuts.

As local and state governments slash their budgets in the coming months, government workers will face painful job losses, and those will affect more women, who hold nearly 58 percent of public-sector posts, said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. Many of these jobs are in public schools.

“That's only going to make things worse for women,” Stevenson said.

Working mothers face an especially daunting recovery because they rely on schools and day-care centers that remain closed. Even if hotels and restaurants and stores reopen, some women might not be able to find the child care necessary to return to work.

“If summer camps don’t open up, if schools don’t open in the fall, who goes back to work?” Stevenson said.

That’s the question facing Dubois, the single mother on Long Island. For the past decade, she has built a career working at different high-end hotels in Manhattan, often working overnight and 16-hour shifts as a waitress to support her 6-year-old son. But she’s been out of work since March, when the Dominick hotel, formerly the Trump SoHo hotel, closed temporarily.

Now she’s relying on unemployment assistance to feed her son. She’s fallen behind on her mortgage, cut her car insurance and has dug into the little savings she has to pay the bills.

She’s heard the hotel may not reopen until July. And even if she could find a different job before then, maybe as a delivery driver, she doesn’t know how she’d be able to leave her son, with schools and child-care centers closed.

“I can’t afford to pay the babysitter anymore,” she said. “I haven’t thought of what I could possibly do next.”

A potentially widening wage gap

At the start of this year, for only the second time, women reached a significant milestone: They outnumbered men in the U.S. paid workforce, bolstered by surges in health care and education.

Women have made inroads in traditionally male industries, but their job gains have primarily been in traditionally female-oriented sectors — working with people in jobs that are often lower paying. Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found that the difference in occupations chosen by men and women was the single largest factor accounting for the gender pay gap.

A recent report from the NWLC found that nearly two-thirds of the 22.2 million workers in the country’s 40 lowest-paying jobs are women. It also found that more than two-thirds of mothers in the low-paid workforce are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families.

Single parents struggle to home-school and work as their support systems disappear

Not only do women make about 82 percent of what men make, but they also have less savings. And time away from work tends to depress women’s wages, potentially exacerbating the country’s persistent gender pay gap, said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the NWLC.

Many women were already barely bringing in enough money to cover child-care costs.

“Now let’s just add in the fact that your job just got a lot more dangerous,” Stevenson said. “You’re sending your kid to child care, where you’re also risking you might get sick. You start doing all that math, and it just doesn’t make sense anymore.”

While women overall were more likely than men to be unemployed, black and Hispanic women were hit the hardest, at 16.4 and 20.2 percent unemployment respectively.

Among them are women like Racaél Guzmán, a 46-year-old mother of three who was temporarily laid off from her custodial job at office buildings in Alexandria, Va., but cannot apply for unemployment because she is an undocumented immigrant.

She has worked for the company since she came to the United States from El Salvador in 2004. Guzmán, who has high blood pressure, is worried that her health care will run out at the end of 60 days. Volunteers from a local church brought her bags of cereal, cooking oil and other food for her and her family. But she’s worried about how she will pay for groceries if she can’t return to work in the coming weeks.

She barely managed to pay the rent last month.

“Purely thanks to the holy Mary, we were able to make it,” she said. “But I don’t know about the next month.”

‘A drastic turn’

Sabrina Baptiste, a single mother of 15-month-old twins in the District’s Northeast, was down to about three days’ worth of diapers last week before a church group stopped by her apartment with more. Since mid-March, she has not been able to return to her work as a bartender.

“I had a good thing going,” she said. “I was able to do everything I wanted to do.” She had found an affordable day care for the twins and was able to make a steady income with generous tips. “Now it just took a drastic turn.”

She’s barely been able to make partial payments on her rent and utilities. She’s not been able to access unemployment assistance or a stimulus check. Even if she can go back to her job, will the child-care center reopen for her children?

“I really don’t want to go ahead and think about that,” she said. “If it gets any worse, it’s like, ‘Come on,’ I don’t know how I’ll be able to manage.”

Michelle Utterback has been a hairdresser for more than 35 years. She never made a lot of money, she said, but she always had enough to support herself.

“My dad always said it was more important to get a trade because you know you can always have a job,” said Utterback, 59. “If you’re doing hair, you know you can always get a job.”

With her salon closed because of the pandemic, she worries she’ll lose the clientele she worked hard to build up. She fears she might be laid off permanently and will struggle to find another job.

Dubois also has wondered whether she will have to change careers. For more than a decade, she has loved the hotel industry. “I am a hospitality person,” she said. “I’ve always been a friendly, talkative person.”

After years of working three different hotel jobs, and many overnight shifts, she saved up enough money to buy a condominium in a quiet neighborhood. She was able to give her son his own room and a small yard. She was even able to take him on a vacation to Mexico recently.

“I started making something for myself, building a life for my son,” she said. “Now it’s like I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s next.”

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