The pandemic undoubtedly wreaked some form of havoc on just about everyone's life. But statistics are piling up showing that it has hurt women more, particularly those who are African American and Latinx, eroding many of the gains in the workforce that had been made in recent years. Around 2.5 million women dropped out of the labor force or lost their jobs during the pandemic, compared to 1.8 million men, according to Labor Department data released last month. The situation is so dire that Vice President Kamala Harris called it a "mass exodus" and "national emergency" in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post.
Virtual school isn't the only thing disrupting the lives of women, who still shoulder much of the parenting responsibility in this country. They are also more likely to have face-to-face jobs in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, retail and dining, which have experienced large cuts. When the streets of the Inner Harbor are barren and empty of tourists, that equates to many residents being out of work as these are jobs that can't go virtual. Many women have also lost their small businesses during the pandemic, whether it be a small retail shop or nail salon. In February 2020, around 5 million women were business owners. By April, 1 in 4 had closed their doors, Harris noted.
In many ways, the last year exposed the fragility of the working woman that existed long before the pandemic. As the Brookings Institute put it in a recent report on why women are suffering: "COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up." More than two-thirds of women were the sole, primary or co-breadwinner of the family before the pandemic. And now they are struggling to survive. Carol Ott, who does tenant advocacy for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland said the number of clients coming in for assistance has increased from 239 to more than 900 at the end of 2020 - and most are Black women.
A state relief package will offer some financial assistance, and legislation for federal relief will, we hope, soon pass in Congress. But more long-term help is needed that will help women get back on financial solid footing and improve their lives even after the pandemic is over. The General Assembly could start with approving the Time to Care Act of 2021 (House Bill 375, Senate Bill 211), which would require employers to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family emergency leave to their workers. The Maryland Essential Workers' Protection Act (H.B. 581, S.B. 486) would also offer essential workers, once again mostly women, extra financial help in the form of hazard pay at a time when many are eating the costs of personal protective equipment required for their jobs. Companies, especially the ones whose business has done well during the pandemic, should offer such pay or bonuses themselves, but we know many will not.
The pandemic has also shown companies that more flexible work options don't hurt the business, and could in fact help employees be more productive. They should continue telework options after the pandemic. A mom needs to stay home with a sick child or because the babysitter called out sick. Why not let them work virtually if they prefer it?
The pandemic should also spark a broader policy questions about expanding health care, housing and other federal safety net programs. At Health Care For the Homeless the percentage of clients who are women has been increasing for several years. Two years ago women were about 42% of clients and last year 44%; pandemic-induced financial strain likely contributed to people losing their homes. At the same time, private market housing prices have grown well beyond wages while subsidized housing is decreasingly available, said Kevin Lindamood, president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless. Safety nets are also eroding, he said. The threat to women the pandemic has exposed will continue to be an issue if we don't address larger policy issues that allowed women to fall into such a precarious position in the first place.