The coronavirus pandemic devastated the American workforce participation rate, particularly for women, creating a worry among experts that decades of wage parity progress were wiped out in less than a year.

“It’s really bad,” Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center, told Yahoo Finance. “It’s really, really bad. I think the wage gap has robbed women of the ability to weather this crisis. We’ve seen them bear the brunt of the job losses, and they didn’t have the savings. I think the typical woman loses $10,000 to the wage gap every year, so she has $10,000 less in savings in her pocket that she could have had to bear this out.”

An employee wearing a protective mask writes down details to ship an order to a customer at Sundance Shoes amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Birmingham, Michigan, U.S., May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

‘Can’t afford to leave the labor force’

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the gender wage gap refers to historically persistent differences between what men and women are paid in the workplace.” In 2019, the average woman earned $0.85 for every dollar a man earned.

The disparities are even more prevalent when broken down by race. Black women made 63% of what white men earned in 2019. According to the American Association of Urban Women (AAUW), “that means it takes the typical Black woman 19 months to be paid what the average white man takes home in 12 months.”

“Women, and especially women of color, are breadwinners,” Tucker said. “Black women, they’re more likely to be a breadwinner for their family than any other racial group. ... If you’re being paid less for racist or sexist reasons, people can’t afford to leave the labor force. You have to work to keep your family afloat.”

It will take over 300 years for Black women to reach pay equity with white men. (Chart: AAUW)
It will take over 300 years for Black women to reach pay equity with white men. (Chart: AAUW)

Women, especially women of color, are also disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs.

“There is evidence that women sometimes choose work flexibility overpay, because they place more value on paid time off or sick leave, for example,” Nicole Bateman, a research analyst for the Brookings Institution, told Yahoo Finance. “A second reason that explains some of the difference can also come down to episodes out of the labor force, like taking time out of the labor force to have a child and care for a child, for example. That’s more common among working women.”

Black and Latina Women are more likely to work in low-wage jobs. (Chart: AAUW)
Black and Latina Women are more likely to work in low-wage jobs. (Chart: AAUW)

‘Not meeting the needs of working mothers’

In September, 865,000 women left the labor force, including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women. That’s four times the number of men that left the labor force. The main reason why? Child care.

“If schools closed down in March, you may be thought you could ride out the rest of the school year,” Tucker said. “In March, we thought we were doing this for a couple of weeks and then we thought it was going to be a couple months, and we didn’t know it was going to be over a year.”

In January 2020, women’s workforce participation rate stood at 57.9%. It sunk to 54.7% in April, at the height of the pandemic. Although it’s improved since then, it hasn’t been by much — only 55.9% of women were in the workforce as of November 2020, compared to 67.4% of men.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:      9-year-old Priscilla Guerrero uses a laptop computer for her 4th grade Los Angeles Unified School District online class in her room as mom Sofia Quezada assists her and 13-year-old sister Paulette Guerrero during remote learning lessons at home on September 17, 2020.  Boyle Heights on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
9-year-old Priscilla Guerrero uses a laptop computer for her 4th grade Los Angeles Unified School District online class in her room as mom Sofia Quezada assists her. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“I think back in March, April, May, we were all just coasting this virtual learning thing,” Tucker said. “I feel like people were just trying to figure it out and balance it all. Again, we thought we were going to be doing this for a short period of time. ... then September comes and you have a kindergartener who now needs to learn on Zoom and that might feel impossible for some people.”

And if someone is in a two-parent household and child care is needed, it’s natural for the person who is making less to leave their job to stay home and play whatever roles are needed. Statistically, it’s more likely to be the woman in the household.

“Our child care and our school systems, even before the pandemic, were not meeting the needs of working mothers,” Bateman said. “I would even broaden that to say workers generally. This is because our systems — particularly the school system — weren’t created to facilitate the participation of women in the labor market. It was designed for the standard two-parent household with a single working parent.”

East College Prep High School senior Jocelyn Hernandez follows a remote Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus class as her cousin plays with his phone while sitting in a community garden near her home, August 14, 2020 in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. - Due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic all Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools will be closed and students will return to class via remote learning when the 2020-21 school year starts on August 18, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Both Bateman and Tucker recommended addressing child care as one of the first steps to mitigating this larger issue of the gender wage gap.

“Some of them include things like funding before- and after-school programs, so that the school day better aligns with work schedules because the 9-to-3 schedule is just not the reality for most workers,” Bateman said. “There are also extended school day programs, which would serve a similar function, so that’s something also to consider.”

“As for child care,” she added, “it’s incredibly unaffordable for the majority of working parents, and that’s because it’s expensive to deliver quality child care. One solution is to provide additional subsidies for lower-income and even middle-income families so that they can afford high-quality child care.”

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 21: Ariana Sophia Crowson points to herself as her teacher says "Welcome, welcome, what's your name?" during the first day of remote school in Boston on Sept. 21, 2020. The 4-year-old's parents, Sophia Moon and Adam Crowson, look at the class on her first day of remote learning, as a Boston Public Schools pre-kindergartner.  In her mother's Charlestown art studio, she uses a school-provided Chromebook to connect with her new class at the Harvard-Kent Elementary School, during the continuing coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Bateman recommended developing policies that incentivize employers to provide their workers (who are parents) with predictable work schedules.

“We need to think beyond COVID to the economy that we want and the support for working women and workers generally,” Bateman said. “We need to think about what we want for those people in a post-COVID era, and the paid sick leave, paid family leave, those are the sorts of policies that we need to consider making long term. Because at the end of the day, COVID has been very hard on working women and workers generally, but these conditions existed before COVID started. Part of the reason it’s been so hard is because of these disparities that existed long before COVID hit, and it’s just ratcheted them up.”

‘There’s a lot of things at play here’

The coronavirus pandemic caused massive unemployment across the country. The overall unemployment rate of women in the third quarter of 2020 was 9.5% — 8.6% for white women, 12.7% for Black women, 11.6% for Asian women, and 12.5% for Hispanic/Latina women.

In November, 9% of Black women and 8.2% of Latinas were unemployed (relative to 6.1% overall).

Tucker suspects those numbers could be even higher.

“There’s a lot of things at play here,” Tucker said. “If you’re no longer in the labor force — like you’ve totally dropped out, you’re trying to do caregiving, you’re trying to be a teacher, you’re trying to care for your COVID-positive family, whatever you’re doing — you’re not in the workforce anymore. That’s going to drive the unemployment rate down artificially because you’re no longer being captured as unemployed. You’re being captured as out of the labor force, so some of those numbers look artificially low.”

Black and Latina women were unemployed more than average in November. (Chart: NWLC)
Black and Latina women were unemployed more than average in November. (Chart: NWLC)

Another factor for these numbers is that many people are working part-time during the pandemic, especially women of color. Research from NWLC found that more than 14% of women working part-time in November were “doing so involuntarily, meaning they wanted full-time work.” For Asian women, the number is 16.3%, for Latinas 19.1%, and 23% for Black women.

“You might have your job or your hours may have been cut back,” Tucker said. “Let’s say you were working at a restaurant, your restaurant closed, you lost your job, they hired your back, but you’re only back part-time, half of the hours that you were there before. That’s also going to drive down the unemployment rate. You’re not classified as unemployed anymore, but your labor is not being utilized at the maximum potential. You want your full-time hours back, but you can’t get them. And that’s especially true for women of color.”

DENVER, CO - JULY 17: Target employees Nicole Misagwe, left, and Dina Atambwe, right, chat during a sneak peek of the new Target store on July 17, 2018, in Denver, Colorado. This is the second urban Target store in Denver. The store, which is smaller than most Targets, will carry everything most Targets have including clothing and food. The grand opening of the store for the public will be on Sunday July 22, 2018. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The NWLC research also found that in November, nearly 2 in 5 unemployed women had been out of the workforce for at least six months. This includes 36.2% of Black women, 36.9% of Latinas, and 44.9% of Asian women.

“At this point, women, and people who are in a low-paid job and are looking for new work, they’re going to take the first thing that comes along,” Tucker said. “They don’t have a choice. If they were working some maybe higher-paid position before and they get laid off, they’re going to go work in the grocery store. They’re going to go to Instacart. They’re going to try to piece something together because they don’t have any savings.”

And amid a current pandemic, that means putting themselves at risk in order to make ends meet.

“They’re going to take some of these front-line worker positions that maybe white men or people with higher income are just going to not take because they can afford to wait,” Tucker said. “They’re going to hold out, they’re going to keep applying to things, they’re going to wait for something with the pay that was on par or higher than what they were laid off from.”