By Jaz Brennan, Groundcover intern

Image credit: Rayne Zaayman-Gallant, EMBL Heidelberg

On March 24th, United States Representative for Michigan, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, went live on Facebook to talk about how women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Congresswoman Dingell held a discussion with labor leaders Cindy Estrada of the UAW International Union and Jeannette Bradshaw of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to expose the adverse realities women are facing. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, during the COVID-19 pandemic almost five million of women’s jobs were lost, with only a couple million recovered. According to Estrada, 42% of women are the sole breadwinners in their household; 62% when specifically looking at women of color. Women in the workplace are often relegated to low-paying, non-union jobs which decreases access to benefits, leadership positions and positions with vertical ascension. A loss this high disrupts the basis of our society as women are forced to go without income, benefits or support to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. 

Women who have managed to stay employed often do so to their own detriment. Income standards have consistently been unequal, and the pandemic has only led to an increased deficit. To this day, on average, women make less than men in the same position. In 2020, women made approximately $0.80 to every dollar of a man. This number drops further, to $0.62, for women of color.  

Due to historical and cultural narratives still present in our society, women are often  subjugated to caretaking roles in the workplace. Many of the positions that were not eliminated are considered front line and essential. These include waitstaff, healthcare, education and residential care workers. While these positions still existed, the women working them experienced a great risk to their personal and their families’ health. While struggling in these low-wage positions and lack of benefits, there were additional barriers in getting proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), hazard pay, and other life-saving assistive measures. Without the ability to take sick leave, or isolate themselves from their families, women in these workspaces were in the highest category for risk of infection and transmission. 

In addition to the caretaking responsibilities in their paid positions, women are often the sole caretakers of their families. Estrada discussed the extra stress women take on when there is no other option but to stay home with children, being forced to choose family life over their professions. Estrada spoke of the high costs of childcare and unfeasible hour constraints as major barriers. Many daycares are not opening early enough or staying open late enough to facilitate the average woman’s workday. Estrada reported that some job sites are working with women by providing childcare stipends. However, they are rarely sufficient to offset the financial burden to families. 

Dingell added that throughout the pandemic, childcare options were widely unavailable due to the nature of the virus and its mode of transmission. With school closures, women are now having to be teachers in addition to caregivers and breadwinners. Jeannette Bradshaw chimed in that while children were of large concern, women are also faced with caregiving for parents and or elderly family members. The time alone would hinder anyone from being able to work one job, let alone facing the need of working multiple jobs with little government assistance. 

The federal economic stimulus packages that have been sent out have been of both significant and little benefit to many women and families. The three packages, sent out in April and December of 2020, and March 2021, were often used to catch up on bills that had long gone unpaid. While necessary in the moment, they are not of long term benefit to the many who are struggling to remain above water. Wealth-building ventures such as investing and retirement plans are still not available to most due to their high need of disposable income. This leaves questions as to how this economic downturn will continue to affect women and families throughout the next several generations. 

With the amount of pressure women are experiencing alongside the more widespread realities of the pandemic including isolation, constant changes in public policy, and deplorable acts of violence throughout the community, mental health is as much a concern as anything. Rates of anxiety and depression throughout our society have increased as has the demand for mental health care. This, however, is another strain on the already heightened economic burden on women and families. Women are left caring for the mental health needs of their children, while experiencing high needs of their own. The lack of benefits often mean that women are left to their own devices in balancing their emotional and mental states. 

According to the National Health Institute, there’s emerging evidence that alcohol and drug consumption are on the rise throughout the nation. This can lead to devastating effects in family units in our current day as well as cause major ripples in the future generations of children growing up in these environments. 

According to Dingell, The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed several sore spots of our societies. Dingell said that this long standing issue of women’s rights has become a crisis and if we do not begin to develop solutions to this issue, the significant loss of women in the workplace as well as the additional strain that women have been made to bear will continue to affect our families and our communities well into the future.

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