Public Policy is Failing Women of Color in the Pandemic

Weekly Article
Aug. 6, 2020

As a young child, Michelle Holder simply couldn’t make sense of it. Holder watched her mom, who immigrated from Panama to New York City, struggle to raise three children while trying to make ends meet. No matter what her mom did and how hard she labored, she simply couldn’t make enough money. And her mother wasn’t alone. At an early age, Holder wanted to know why the promise of hard work paying off in America didn’t hold true for her mom, and so many Black women like her. From her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the young Holder “watched a neighborhood full of women and children struggle to survive in a country that had a lot of wealth to go around.”

Fast-forward to July 2020. An ongoing public health crisis has claimed the lives of thousands in the United States, and revealed what Michelle Holder, PhD, now an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, knew to be true as a child: public policies failed her mother then, and without robust interventions by policymakers now, will continue to fail women of color in the midst of a pandemic.

Long before the coronavirus crisis, the deck had been stacked against Black women and women of color; the COVID-19 pandemic has only exposed and exacerbated the existing economic barriers they already face. Before the public health crisis, the gender and racial wage gap put women of color at a distinct financial disadvantage. On average, for every dollar white men earned, Black women only earned 62 cents and Latina women earned 54 cents. Based on her analysis, Holder estimates that the double-wage gap Black women face on account of their gender and race costs their community nearly $50 billion every year in lost wages.

Not only do women of color earn less money for every hour they work, they also are overrepresented in sectors like child care, food services, and home health, historically undervalued, poorly compensated, and usually without benefits. Despite working full-time jobs, more than 40 percent of all Latina, Native American, and Black women in low-paid occupations had household incomes at or below the poverty line in 2018. Now these very same women of color, many of them single parents or the main breadwinners for their families, shoulder the weight of the nation as essential workers on the front lines: as shelf stockers, ER nurses, nursing home aides, warehouse workers, and bus drivers.

Yet, even as these women labor to keep the nation alive, policymakers have abandoned them.

The coronavirus relief packages passed by Congress exempted not only businesses with more than 500 employees, but also much of the healthcare sector from the emergency paid sick leave and family leave mandates. Among the 106 million workers excluded from these lifesaving provisions were employees for some of the largest food, retail, and warehouse corporations, often low-paid and disproportionately women of color. Women of color on the front lines face the constant threat of potential coronavirus infections. Taking two weeks off to quarantine and recover would mean losing the little income they do have or even their jobs. While women of color continue to care for the nation, many have never had the ability to do the same for themselves and their families.

Many women of color who aren’t on the front lines simply no longer have jobs to go to. As the pandemic progresses, Black, Latina, and Asian women continue to experience disproportionately high rates of unemployment. The pandemic has halted the normal operations of sectors in which women of color are overrepresented, like the hotel, retail, and restaurant industries. And according to Jaime Gloshay, project manager at Roanhorse Consulting and co-founder of Native Women Lead, Native American women—the economic drivers of their communities and often microentrepreneurs in the creative economy—are also witnessing the deterioration of their economic livelihood. Due to structural barriers, many Native American-owned small businesses cannot access unemployment benefits and federal emergency relief loans, explains Gloshay.

When it comes to supporting workers experiencing unemployment, Congress initially provided much-needed expanded relief to the unprecedented numbers of unemployed workers. But as of July 31, the weekly $600 supplement to unemployment benefits expired. With Republicans seeking to slash the weekly support, Congress remains deadlocked and plans of an extension remain unclear. The loss of income is devastating for any family, but especially for women of color who, due to “racist and sexist policies and practices reinforced over time...slavery, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, red-lining, the G.I. Bill,” have little to no wealth," explains Dominique Derbigny, deputy director at Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap.

“The $600 was essential to my everyday life,” says Latrice Wilson, a payroll supervisor who was furloughed from her job and struggles with an auto-immune disorder. Wilson shared on a recent episode of the Better Life Lab’s podcast, “Crisis Conversations,” that she uses 20 percent of the benefits extension to keep her employer-provided health insurance—critical to her health—and the rest she saves in an emergency fund, despite knowing that it won’t last her more than a few months.

The unemployment benefits Wilson receives from her state cannot alone pay her bills or keep her afloat. If she found another job, she’d risk losing her health insurance and could face unemployment or furloughing again. For Wilson, who is still paying off student loans from her master’s degree, and her college-bound daughter, the $600 is about survival.

Even as these women labor to keep the nation alive, policymakers have abandoned them.

While the pandemic has compounded the existing challenges that women of color face, it has also created a unique, unprecedented, and timely opportunity for policymakers to create and implement new policies that meet the needs of women of color and strengthen their economic resilience during and after the pandemic.

On the podcast, Jocelyn Frye, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explains that one way to do that would be to fairly compensate frontline workers with premium pay. In addition to raising worker wages, extending emergency paid leave and paid sick days eligibility to workers currently excluded from coronavirus relief packages would also help promote the health, wellbeing, and job security of women of color in low-wage occupations. To help families make ends meet, policymakers should also reinstate the $600 supplement to unemployment benefits, thereby providing families with additional resources to afford basic necessities like food and housing, or save as emergency funds during this crisis.

Another policy solution that could support women of color and their families? A $50 billion investment in child care. Forty-five percent of child care workers are Black, Latinx, or Asian; when centers shutter, workers lose their main source of income, which is already meager to begin with. Just 11 percent of providers feel confident in their ability to make it through the pandemic without support from the government. This federal investment would help keep child care providers in business, allowing early education instructors to care for the children of essential workers and, as safety measures allow, the children of other working parents.

Moving forward, public policies must lead to an overhaul of the pre-pandemic status quo. Policies must confront and redress pervasive labor market disparities by raising the minimum wage to a liveable wage, enforcing equal pay protections, and providing permanent, universal paid family and medical leave and sick days across all industries, sectors, and occupations. To ensure more equitable economic outcomes across race and gender, policymakers will need to take actionable steps towards closing the racial wealth gap, stresses Derbigny. On the podcast, she posits that baby bonds and reparations are two policy solutions that could provide economically marginalized families with a starting point for building wealth.

Implementing policies that value the labor of women of color and creates equal access to financial security will not only ensure their survival during this pandemic, and stability afterwards, but it will also help dismantle an economic and labor system rooted in a legacy of white supremacy, which has withheld workplace protections, job opportunities, access to wealth-building assets, and social benefits from women of color. Women of color have waited too long, “struggling to survive in a nation that has more than enough wealth to go around.” The time for reimagining and constructing an economic and labor system built on policies that work for, instead of against, women of color, is long overdue.

Corrected at 11:00 a.m. on August 13, 2020: A previous version of this article miquoted Dominique Derbigny, and has been corrected to reflect her contributions as a guest on the Crisis Conversations podcast. Derbigny did not discuss universal basic income while a guest on the podcast. We have made an update to more accurately reflect Jamie Gloshay’s comment; we specify that the small businesses in question are Native American-owned. This article was also corrected to reflect that Jocelyn Frye used the term “premium pay” rather than “hazard pay” in reference to increasing frontline workers’ wages.