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Virus puts spotlight on women in the workforce

Thaler McCormick, ForKids Chief Executive Officer, and Barbara Blake, Chief Administrative Officer at The Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at ODU, wrote this op-ed , published in the Virginian-Pilot May 20, 2020, on the impact of COVID-19 on women in Hampton Roads.

Anita is a hairdresser in Norfolk with two young children whose salon shut down. Nikki, an in-home care assistant in Virginia Beach, is no longer needed because family members are home to care for their elderly parent. Pam, an assistant manager for a storage facility in Chesapeake, lives with her 3-year-old son in a hotel she can no longer afford after her hours were cut.

As the world begins to grasp the full consequences of the coronavirus, these real women in our region and millions more like them show the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on working women.

Throughout the pandemic, women are functioning as first responders and essential personnel. Globally, women make up 70% of workers in the health and social sectors and provide most of society’s unpaid care work. Trending close to global norms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), almost eight of 10 workers in U.S. health care and social assistance industry sector were women. In 2019, 94% of child care service workers in the United States were women and the median hourly wage for childcare workers in Virginia was $10.96.

Child care, now decimated by COVID-19 closures, is an essential service for most working women and they are more likely to lose their jobs without it. The almost 1.3 million students that were registered in Virginia’s public schools in Fall 2019 are now housebound. According to the Census Bureau, 46 million households were headed by single women, with one-fourth living in poverty in 2018.

Reduced incomes, child care, mobility and increased isolation have released a new pandemic: domestic violence. The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance reported hotline calls increased by 76% statewide in March. Particularly important is that the U.S. Senate allowed the Violence Against Women Act to expire more than a year ago. This surge in domestic violence is not limited to Virginia. An April United Nations report highlighted a “shadow pandemic” of escalating domestic violence around the world.

The loss of employment for women who hold unprotected, low-wage jobs, coupled with the astonishing increase in unpaid care work, could wipe out many gains previously won. Family support systems critical to low-wage female workers have also taken a big hit, as older family members turn from caregivers to needing care.

Locally, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women is demonstrated by the calls coming into the regional Housing Crisis Hotline operated by ForKids. Anita, Nikki and Tammy were among the 5,300 households from Hampton Roads requesting assistance from the hotline in the last two months. An astounding 73% of callers who have requested COVID-19 assistance since March 1 are women.

To identify and address the social and economic needs of women in COVID-19 recovery, women must be adequately represented in decision-making. The 2019 Hampton Roads State of the Region report disclosed a stubborn leadership gap. Despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, only 10% of the White House COVID-19 task Force, 24% of Congress and 33% of the Virginia COVID-19 Business Task Force are comprised of women. Gender diverse decision-making bodies are needed to tackle flexible work arrangements and paid leave for school and day care closures for an economy dependent on its female workforce.

As we scramble to put our economy back together, policies that develop an inclusive economy and a social safety net that supports female workers and unpaid care workers are vital. By ignoring the disparities, we economically and socially disadvantage working women like Anita, Nikki and Tammy and their families right here in our community.


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