It is not surprising that COVID-19 continues pounding the labor market. The latest government figures show a net loss of 140,000 jobs in December, including nearly 45,000 in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region. What may be surprising is that all those jobs were held by women, especially women of color.
"Right now, we have almost two people looking for every job opening up that exists," said Jasmine Tucker. "So even if we filled all those jobs, there would be millions of people still unemployed."
Tucker is director of research at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, DC. She has been analyzing the jobs market for the last decade and said every year is another surprise.
"I was really surprised to see all of the losses were women's losses. We're asking people to do impossible things right now and especially women," she said.
The center's analysis found that although net jobs lost hit 140,000 nationwide, women lost 156,000 jobs while men actually gained 16,000.
Tucker said women have disportionately lost work since the pandemic started, as they make up a larger segment of industries hardest hit: retail, leisure and hospitality, bars and restaurants, state and local government jobs, including schools, where remote learning has trimmed payrolls.
Women are also a family's main caregiver, and COVID has forced many to leave work altogether to care for a child or other loved one.
"In September, we saw massive dropouts in the labor force, right, because I think a lot of women reached their tipping point. They can't be breadwinner, they can't be teacher, they can't be all the things for all the kids and all of the people in their household. So something had to give," Tucker said. "We saw that happen last month for Black women."
Women of color are in for even harder times.
Black women already face more barriers to employment than most and early in the pandemic, their unemployment nearly doubled, Tucker said. When a second COVID surge hit around Thanksgiving, the "crisis" worsened.
"If we look at previous recessions, and if this recession is anything like them, women of color are going to be out of work longer and more of them are going to be out of work. They have higher rates of unemployment for a longer period of time," she said. "So after the Great Recession, Black women saw double-digit unemployment for five years. It was literally 60 consecutive months. Do you want to guess how long white men were unemployed for double digits? Zero months."
Here are some December unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- Both the U.S. rate (6.7%) and the number of unemployed people (10.7 million) were unchanged, but nearly twice pre-pandemic levels in February (3.5% and 5.7 million, respectively).
- The unemployment rate for whites was 6.0%, compared to 9.9% for Blacks.
- For white men it was 5.8%, compared to 10.4% for Black men.
- For white women it was 5.7%, compared to 8.4% for Black women.
- The rate for Buffalo-Niagara Falls was 7.5% -- the highest in the state outside New York City (11%), except for Chautauqua County (7.8%) -- compared to 4.7% a year earlier.
Unemployment rates help show the disparities among genders and races, but they can also be misleading, as the figures reflect only those actively looking for work.
Tucker said the pandemic has knocked 2.1 million women out of the job market completely and, like other recessions, the impact will be deep-rooted. Women just graduating from college may have to live with Mom and Dad a while longer or work only part-time, and more established women may have to downshift their career to pay the bills.
"When they're going to re-enter the workforce, they're going to be more likely to take the first job that comes along, right? Because they haven't had savings to weather this storm. They've been paid less this whole time, due to the wage gap. And so they're gonna come back in probably at lower levels than they did when they left," she said. "It's gonna look different for white men, who've had some savings and maybe can hold out a little longer and wait for a higher-paying option."
But a larger question remains.
In 2020, we celebrated 100 years since women got the right to vote, the #MeToo Movement toasted the rape conviction of former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a woman coached in the Super Bowl for the first time and America elected its first female vice president. How is it possible that women are still so deeply entrenched as second-class workers?
"I think there are some assumptions about who's working and why they're working, right? Like some stereotypical, 'Oh, we have to keep the dads employed because they're probably the breadwinners.' And I think there's this notion that women are just supplementing family income," Tucker said. "But women are more likely to be breadwinners than ever, and especially women of color, especially Black women. And so they need these jobs."
Tucker said fixing the problem will mean "real relief" -- "money in the hands of people" -- starting at the top. She said Congress underestimated the costs of the pandemic and "real unemployment benefits" is just the start of what is needed to survive this latest upheaval.