Moms, frontline female workers face higher barriers in COVID-19 economy

May 10-16, 2021

By Wesley Brown


As key U.S. economic data is released over the past two weeks showing a strong economic rebound in April, one big piece of the puzzle that is missing is the fate of millions of women that have left or gone missing from the U.S. job market during the pandemic.


Two recent federal reports, one by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau and the monthly U.S. employment snapshot, show that women have suffered the most in the workforce due to their roles both as essential frontline workers and primary caregivers at home.


According to the March 23 written by Census Bureau survey statisticians Lynda Laughlin and Megan Wisniewski, a whopping 34 million women work in jobs officially classified as essential. The same women in those occupations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic also represent most workers in several occupations, including those in health care, education, personal care and sales and office jobs.


“Because women make up a large portion of the essential workforce, they have played a critical role in the U.S. economy and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Laughlin and Wisniewski, part of the bureau’s Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics division.


Recently revised data from the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that at the peak of the pandemic in March 2020, more than 33 million workers were sent to the sidelines in the U.S. In the March unemployment report released on April 2, BLS reported that 11.4 million persons reported they had been unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic


Still, that total is a strong improvement from the 13.3 million workers who could not find work in February. For the month, total nonfarm payroll employment spiked by 916,000 as job growth in March was widespread, with the largest gains occurring in leisure and hospitality, public and private education, and construction. Still, that total is still down by 8.4 million, or 5.5%, from its pre-pandemic peak in February 2020, when the jobless rate for women was a tidy 4% compared to 5.7% today.


In a recent analysis of the regional job market that includes Arkansas, St. Louis Federal Reserve economist Alexander Monge-Naranjo said the jobs in the health care, education and hospitality sectors had the most labor market disruptions and higher female unemployment.


“COVID-19 was probably the perfect storm for many women in these jobs, especially those with families. The figure shows a steep fall in these types of jobs, and, at least from the current observations, a much slower labor recovery for women than for men. Furthermore, the unemployment rate increased substantially more for women of color than for white women,” wrote Monge-Naranjo in a March 23 report culled by BLS data.


“In sum, in addition to the remarkable asymmetry between men’s and women’s job losses, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities for women in the labor force, as dictated by their skill levels and occupations,” said the economic forecaster from the Federal Reserve’s Eighth District, which covers all of Arkansas and portions of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.


Despite women’s substantial presence in essential jobs, the disparity between total median earnings for women and men exists across occupations deemed essential, the Census Bureau employment data shows. According to Laughlin and Wisniewski, women earned 82 cents to every dollar earned by men in the year before the global pandemic.


In their similar report, Laughlin and Wisniewski identified 312 detailed occupations from the 2019 American Community Survey where workers provide services essential to the continued operations of the economy in face of unprecedented challenges associated with COVID-19.


According to the findings, women have driven the overall employment growth in health care and play a key role in everyday health care needs associated with COVID-19. For example, women comprise 73% of health care practitioners and technical occupations identified as essential. They also make up an ever-larger proportion (86%) of essential health care support workers.


In highlighting women’s role in combating the COVID-19 crisis, census data show research shows that registered nurses are one of the most common health care related occupations. Around 2.5 million of the nation’s full-time, year-round workers and 87% of registered nurses are women.


“Despite women’s large presence in health care occupations, the gender wage gap remains,” said the Census Bureau statisticians, noting that male nurses had higher median earnings of $73,603 in 2019 compared with $68,509 for their female counterparts.



COVID-19 pay gap


Meanwhile, just ahead of Mother’s Day, the National Women’s Law released another damning report noting that women lost $800 billion in pay as many had to leave work to take care of sick loved ones impacted by COVID-19. Others had to stay at home to watch kids that could not attend school during the pandemic.


According to NWLC, mothers that work full-time, year-round are typically paid only 75 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. Even before a global health crisis with devastating economic consequences, the pay gap for mothers resulted in monthly losses of $1,275 and annual losses of $15,300, meaning mothers had to work more than 16 months to make as much as fathers were paid in 12.


For women of color, racial inequities compound the motherhood pay gap. For example, Latina mothers are paid just 46 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers. Native American mothers and Black mothers are paid only 50 cents and 52 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers.


According to NWLC, during the pandemic many working mothers have been unable to manage caregiving for children and other family members, remote learning, and other responsibilities on top of their jobs. These impossible pressures, combined with massive job losses, have pushed many mothers out of the labor force entirely. The unemployment rate for mothers in 2020 was 7.5%, more than double their unemployment rate of 3.5% in 2019.


For many mothers of color, unemployment rates were even higher: In 2020, 8.1% of Asian mothers,5 10.3% of Black mothers, and 10.4% of Latina mothers were unemployed. Between 2019 and 2020, 575,000 mothers left the labor force entirely, meaning they were no longer working or looking for work and are not included in unemployment rates.


The NWLC, which celebrates May 5 as Mother’s Equal Pay Day to mark how far into the year mothers must work to catch up to what fathers, stated that many working moms are essential to the front-line workforce. As noted by the census and BLS data, mothers who kept working through the pandemic are also providing essential services in education, health care, and other frontline industries – all while being paid only a fraction of what fathers are paid for the same work.


While mothers make up 15.5% of the overall workforce, they account for over one in five (22.5%) of the front-line workers providing essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report states, NWLC data shows. Yet even within these vital front-line occupations, mothers are losing income to the wage gap. For example, more than one in three (33.7%) preschool, K-12, and special education teachers are mothers, but they are paid only 83 cents for every dollar paid to fathers working as teachers.


Home health aides, personal care aides, and nursing assistants have been risking their lives to provide essential care during the pandemic. Nearly three in ten (28.8%) workers in these jobs are mothers, who are typically paid only 84 cents for every dollar paid to fathers in the same occupations. Nearly one in five (19.6%) janitors, building cleaners, maids, and housekeepers are mothers (and 75.9% of those mothers are women of color), and they are paid only 65 cents for every dollar paid to their counterparts who are fathers.


That same report showed that mothers in Arkansas made 74 cents for every dollar paid to fathers. That amounts to about $11,900 less in total earnings annually, NWLC data shows. In late January, Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to advance racial and gender equity and address the pay gap disproportionately affecting women of color in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


On April 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the paycheck fairness legislation that updates the Equal Pay Act of 1963 in a party line vote 217-210. Emily Martin, NWLC’s vice president for Education & Workplace Justice, called on Congress to complete the task of approving that legislation and the Raise the Wage Act to raise the federal minimum wage.


“The women working in these essential jobs shouldn’t be asked to bear the risk of falling into poverty even when they work full time. In order to build a stronger economy that works for everyone, we must increase the minimum wage and shrink the gender wage gap,” said Martin.


President Joe Biden applauded the passage of the bill, which is now before the U.S. Senate. He said the legislation would close loopholes that have allowed employers to justify gender pay disparities. It would also strengthen provisions for holding employers accountable for systemic pay discrimination and help level the playing field for women and people of color by making it easier for workers to challenge pay disparities as a group.


“I applaud the House of Representatives for passing the Paycheck Fairness Act,” said Biden. “Closing the gender pay gap is more than just an economic imperative — it’s a moral imperative as well.”  




Recent Census Bureau data show 34 million women work in jobs officially classified as essential to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite those numbers, women in those occupations are still seeing large wage gaps compared to their male counterparts.