WASHINGTON — High unemployment experienced by Black and Hispanic women throughout the pandemic will persist long after it is over unless the federal government and employers take targeted actions to bring them back into the workforce, experts are warning.
Unemployment rates for both demographic groups rose in June, and were more than one-and-a-half times what they were in February 2020, fueling concerns that the country will have a lopsided economic recovery that leaves many women of color behind.
“We’ll end up the same way we did in 2008,” C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said referring to the recession.
The White House says that President Joe Biden is trying to lessen economic disparity for Black and Latina women with programs in his COVID-relief law and infrastructure proposals that include job training, free community college, investments in minority-serving higher education institutions, paid medical and sick leave and childcare assistance.
While those programs are not just for Black and Latina women, White House officials say they are intended to help them.
Council of Economic Advisers chair Cecilia Rouse said in an interview that the administration believes the investments “will help women of color in particular.”
“So, it’s not that it’s willy nilly, these are just little pieces that were kind of stitched together. These are areas where we know will be particularly impactful.”
A decade after that financial crisis officially ended, unemployment for Black and Latina women in 2019 was at its lowest point in history. Still, the jobless rate remained higher for those women than it did for all other workers, with the exception of African American men.
“The number continued to stay above the federal rate. The same is true right now,” Mason said of the warning signals.
The unemployment rate for all Americans was 5.9% in June, the Labor Department said, increasing slightly from the month prior as more individuals began to actively seek work. However, that figure does not reflect the total number of Americans who lost or left jobs in the pandemic.
Fewer women are participating in the workforce, the National Women’s Law Center says, than they have in the last three decades. And those that are seeking work are struggling to find jobs.
“Men came back to the labor force last month but went straight from being not in the labor force to being employed. And what happened to women is they went from not in the labor force to unemployed,” said Jasmine Tucker, director of research at NWLC. “So men got jobs right away, women are looking for work.”
The unemployment rate was even higher for adult Black women — 8.2% of whom were unemployed — and Hispanic women aged 20 and up — 7.9% of whom were out of work — than it was for white men and white women. Adult white men had an unemployment rate of 5.2%, while white women in the same age group had a 5% jobless rate.
“This is not a new problem, it’s an old problem,” said Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who focuses on women’s economic security. “The reality is that Black women and Latinas consistently, persistently have higher unemployment rates than white women.”
Frye said that trajectory can change. But it will take targeted efforts that address problems women face in the workplace such as discrimination and low wages. “We have to be intentional about the solutions. Otherwise, it won’t correct itself,” she said.
To match non-Hispanic white men’s yearly wages, Black women have to work an average of 214 additional days, women’s groups say.
LOWER WAGES, HIGHER UNEMPLOYMENT
Biden administration officials have repeatedly said they are concerned about Black and Hispanic unemployment rates and the prospect of a recovery that furthers racial and economic disparities.
They say that money the administration is seeking from Congress to increase home health care and childcare will create jobs for Black women, who disproportionately work in the caregiving industry. They said the tax credits for families that Biden wants to expand would also help low-income families and Black and Latina women afford those services.
Families making less than $125,000 annually would be eligible under Biden’s plan for a reimbursement of half their childcare costs for children under age 13. Through a proposed extension of the Child Tax Credit that Biden wants Congress to approve, low-income families would continue to be eligible to receive as much as $3,600 in government assistance for each young child.
“The magnitude of investments here is much larger than what we made at the end of the Great Recession,” said Rouse, who was also a member of former President Barack Obama’s economic team. “The idea and finally understanding that care is infrastructure — that is a game-changing idea.”
Biden’s administration recently stood up a $500 million job training and apprenticeship program that it says will focus on women, people of color and underserved populations. The program is intended to help workers obtain higher-wage positions that have benefits and opportunities for career advancement.
“What I hear all the time is — from companies — ‘We are ready to hire, but people need to have the skills. They need digital skills, cybersecurity skills … data skills, cloud computing skills,’” said Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo of the program at a White House briefing. “We need to make sure that women and people of color and people in rural areas have those digital skills so they can get those good jobs.”
Experts on both ends of the political spectrum questioned the effectiveness of federally run job training programs similar to the one the Biden administration is funding with money from the coronavirus relief legislation at reducing employment for women of color.
“We just don’t have a social safety net to even give these families a runway to be able to enter some of these programs and training programs that the administration is talking about,” Mason said.
The administration should focus on helping Black and Latina women advance in the industries in which they are already working, Mason argued, namely in health care, education and the service industry.
White House officials told McClatchy that women who participate in the federal job training program could put money from the tax credits Biden wants to extend toward their living expenses while in training.
Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said past federal job training programs have not increased the likelihood that individuals will even get work in their new fields.
“The industries themselves could do a far better job of this,” she said, referring to training programs. “And they are doing it, and they’re forced to do it in the labor market environment that we’re in.”
Greszler said employers have a better sense than the government of the skills that workers need to do unfilled jobs within those industries.
ROLE FOR BUSINESS
The White House says it is also engaging with businesses about what they can do through its Gender Policy Council.
“I think there is a really strong role for business, and, you know I think anytime you want to move the needle on anything including unemployment for Black and Latino women, you need to enlist all your tools,” said Gender Policy Council co-chair Jennifer Klein.
Klein said that businesses have recognized that supporting their workforce means offering on-site childcare and hiring back women who lost or left their jobs during the pandemic.
“What we are seeing is that businesses really support these care policies, because they know that not only are they good for their workers, but they’re also good for business,” Klein said.
Getting the president’s proposals passed by Congress is the council’s current focus, but Klein said the council is also looking at ways that Biden can unilaterally improve pay equity.
“We’re also working on developing other actions, executive actions we can take,” Klein said, “to make sure that work is safe and fair and equitable.”
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