Many Black women in the workforce had yet to fully recover from the Great Recession before the novel coronavirus pandemic. Now, as the economic fallout and job cuts fall hardest on women of color, the lost earnings from years of pay inequities have left Black women unprepared to weather another financial crisis, experts say.
“These women are losing millions of dollars over their lifetimes because they’re being shortchanged so much compared to their White peers,” said Jasmine Tucker, the law center’s director of research. “It’s money that people need right this second.”
Across the country, Black women are overrepresented in essential jobs such as grocery store cashiers, home health aides, nurses and warehouse workers, making up 11 percent of front-line workers but only 6.3 percent of the overall workforce. They also make up a disproportionate share of workers in service industries that have been forced to lay off workers or cut hours because of closures amid the pandemic.
In many of these jobs, Black women are paid significantly less than their White male colleagues, according to the law center’s report. It was released ahead of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on Aug. 13, marking the day in 2020 to which Black women have to work to be paid in 2019 and 2020 what White, non-Hispanic men made in 2019 alone.
Black women — who make up 11.2 percent of hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists — are paid about 63 cents for every dollar a White, non-Hispanic man in those jobs is paid, according to the report. Black women make up 8.1 percent of janitors, cleaners and maids, and make 66 cents for every dollar paid to a White man in the same jobs.
The pay gap for a Black woman in the District is larger than for the typical Black woman in America, who makes 62 cents for every dollar a White, non-Hispanic man makes, the law center report found. Meanwhile, the typical White woman in the District earns 81 cents for every dollar a White, non-Hispanic man makes.
Maryland has the third smallest pay gap for Black women in the country, and Virginia falls in the middle.
In her 22 years as a trash truck driver for the District, Nelecia Lewis often noticed that there were men in the same jobs as her, with the same level of experience, who were earning far more. She started off making about $20 an hour, when male colleagues in the same positions were making $32 an hour, she said. It took her nearly two decades to catch up to their salary level. She was proud to earn enough to comfortably support her four children as a single mother. But then she learned that a Black male truck driver who had started at the same time was making $45 an hour.
“At the time, we were just so happy to have a job,” Lewis, now 50, said of herself and her Black female colleagues. “We just didn’t look at it like that. Yeah, we were mad about it, but if you say so much about it, you wouldn’t have a job.”
Then, about 10 years ago, her mother got sick, and Lewis ended up leaving the job to take care of her — a family obligation she felt her male peers were less likely to experience. “As a female,” she said, “we will do what we have to do to take care of our loved ones.”
After her mom died, Lewis struggled to get back into the workforce. After several low-paying jobs, she found a job as a concierge at an apartment complex in Chevy Chase, Md., where she works evenings making $15 an hour to help support her youngest son and two grandchildren. She wonders how much more money she would have saved up if she had been paid the same amount as her White and male colleagues — and if she hadn’t had to leave the workforce.
“I would be in a better position,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to take a $15 an hour job. I would have been able to save more money within my lifetime.”
She wouldn’t have to take two buses across town to get to a job that exposes her to dozens of people daily in the middle of the pandemic. She wouldn’t have to pay the $20 Uber ride to get back home after her shift ends at 11 p.m., when the buses are no longer running.
After working at the apartment complex for about two years, Lewis recently asked if she could be switched to an earlier shift, to be home with her family in the evenings. Instead, the earlier slot was filled by a man much younger than her, she said.
Across the District, Black women and men are more likely to work jobs that require manual labor and pay lower wages than White workers, according to a report earlier this year from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. While the most common occupations held by White workers include judicial workers, managers, management analysts and postsecondary teachers, the most common jobs held by Black workers include cashiers, janitors, secretaries and administrative assistants.
“You can see that many Black women workers fill these roles,” said Doni Crawford, policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and lead author of the report. “That directly connects to how much money we are able to make.”
Excluded from wealth-building through homeownership and displaced by rising housing costs, Black workers in the District have faced persistent barriers to economic success. The Black median household income in the District is $45,200, and it has not improved over the past decade. Meanwhile, the median household income for White households has grown by $17,000 to $142,500, three times higher than for Black households. Black mothers, who are more likely than other mothers to be primary breadwinners for their families, must overcome these barriers while managing their caregiving responsibilities.
Adding to these obstacles are the limited avenues for advancement within companies that are overwhelmingly led by White men, or “snow-capped,” said Doris Quintanilla, executive director and co-founder of the Melanin Collective, a D.C.-based organization that offers anti-racism training and consulting with workplaces.
Unpaid internships and low-paying fellowships often keep highly educated and qualified Black women from breaking into jobs in nonprofit and political organizations in the District, Quintanilla said. Even in progressive organizations, Black women are too often stuck in “program assistant” and “assistant manager roles” without clear options for moving up to higher-paying positions.
“What I see is a clustering,” Quintanilla said. “They hire a bunch of Black women in a specific job and that’s where they stay.”
And when the coronavirus struck, Black women were not only hardest hit by unemployment — they were less likely to have the savings to stay afloat.
Leslie Bethel had just begun working as a store manager at Paddywax Candle Bar in Georgetown about a month before the pandemic forced the store to shut down. She was furloughed for weeks, and when her unemployment payments didn’t come through, she was forced to rely on family and friends for financial help.
She had moved to the District seeking a fresh start after struggling to make enough money in the luxury cosmetics industry in New York City. The pay gap was a major reason she left her job in New York to begin with, Bethel said. Working for a high-end cosmetics brand, she learned she was making considerably less than a store manager who had about 15 years less experience.
“I was rebuilding my life with a great company and a great salary and then [the virus] hit,” Bethel said. “I’m starting back over again.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the growth in median household income for White households over the past decade. It has grown by $17,000 to $142,500.