On February 12, Vice President Kamala Harris called the recent exodus of 2.5 million American women from the workforce a “national emergency.” Pandemic-induced job loss, plus the squeeze of caregiving responsibilities, have pushed millions of American women out of the workforce, and even more have seen reduced hours.
Cherita Ellens understands the emergency intimately. As the president and CEO of Women Employed, she is at the forefront of the fight for equitable pay and high-quality work for all women. Women Employed has been fighting for equal pay, ending workplace harassment, and other issues for the last four decades. This understanding of working women across Chicago and beyond make both Women Employed and Cherita Ellens uniquely equipped for the culture-altering moment our economy faces right now.
We recently met with Ellens over Zoom.
What impact has COVID-19 had on women in the workforce?
A couple of things. First, It has caused a disproportionate burden on women because they have been forced out of the workforce or have received a reduction in hours in greater numbers than men.
Next, most individuals in frontline roles are women, the majority being Latina. The women in these essential worker roles are more at risk due to exposure and have seen higher illness rates.
Women during this time have a disproportional responsibility for caregiving. So, when COVID-19 hit, and kids were homeschooled, women were forced to balance managing their kids’ schooling and working. In addition to balancing the children at home, women are also the primary caregivers for our parents. We are in this sandwich generation.
As a country, we have not invested in a work-family policy that would have positioned us to handle this, such as paid leave and paid sick and safe days. Even when recovery packages have passed, there were so many carve-outs that many people don’t have essential basic protections.
Why should the rest of America be concerned about the crisis of women’s unemployment due to the pandemic?
Women are the primary drivers of the economy. They make the spending decisions, so when you lift women and provide them with opportunities, it raises the whole community.
A report released by the Center for American Progress says that the risk of mothers leaving the workforce losing out on work hours amounts to $64.5 billion per year in lost wages. This isn’t just lost wages for those women, but all of us and our economy as a whole. It’s what these women would be contributing, and they are now not able to. It also contributes to how much they will need and lean on public safety nets and public assistance.
It is also tied to their ability to thrive as a family. What is the snowball effect when women must leave the workforce, have no income coming into the house, and are probably the sole or primary breadwinner?
Where you might not be influenced as an individual, you as a part of our larger society, you will be impacted. Even in this last election, President Biden talked about “building back better.” If we are not caring about building back better for our fellow citizens, who are we building back better for?
What should we be doing to end the crisis of women’s unemployment?
We have to advocate for policies that support working women at both the federal and local levels. These include COVID-19 relief for struggling families and paid leave both in the relief packages, and in the long term. We must make sure we aren’t carving out help for those who need it the most.
We have to fight for return-to-work policies. Hotel workers, for instance, when they do come back to work, there is a situation where they lose their seniority and benefits and must start all over again.
When we start planning for recovery, we must center on women, especially Black and Brown women, because they have been most directly impacted by this pandemic. What do they need most to come back to work?
Then we have to engage employers. We have to help them figure out how to create a more inclusive environment to include women. This isn’t one-size-fits-all, yet they have to consider it.
What is giving you hope right now?
One thing that is giving me hope is the conversations people are having, because they were not ones we were willing to have before. We have been advocating for years, but now we are in a place where people are open to it and open to taking actionable steps to create a path forward.
We are also seeing more women in places that matter. While we are underrepresented in most areas, we are starting to see representation from the vice president to other important leadership roles further down. This is important because if we are not there, no one can advocate for what we need. Who is making sure our voices are amplified?