Women hold the majority of jobs on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they are also bearing the brunt of its economic toll.

Three-quarters of health care workers are female. Women not only make up most hospital staff, but also the bulk of nursing home and home care workers. They also hold a large portion of service industry roles, including restaurant servers, hotel housekeepers and salon workers — jobs that businesses quickly cut as customers plummeted and closures began.

Over the past three weeks, nearly 39,000 more women than men have applied for unemployment in Minnesota.

Hamdi Farah's housekeeping job at the Minneapolis Hilton was eliminated as COVID-19 fears set in a few weeks ago. The hotel's busy season was just starting, and usually she would work long hours and additional days to earn extra money. Now she has no idea when she or other members of the predominantly female housekeeping staff will return.

The New Brighton resident filed for unemployment and qualified for a little more than $300 a week. But with six children, groceries eat a large chunk of that, and other bills are stacking up. She planned to buy a car for one of her children who is headed to college. That hope is fading.

"This is a big financial problem," Farah said. "If this continues, then it looks like more families are going to have so many problems."

Men are more likely to get sick and die from the coronavirus, studies show. But some fear the financial damage to women could have a lasting impact on the wealth disparity between genders. Women nationally earn 81 cents to every dollar men earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For women of color, that drops by about 20 cents.

"If you earn less, you have less to save. And right now people are depending upon their savings," said Christina Ewig, director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "If for some reason they can't get those unemployment checks, then to pay the rent and to pay the bills they go into savings. ... So longer-term consequences will be the depletion of savings and the widening of that wealth gap."

At Yumi Sushi in St. Paul, 80% of the front of house staff who interact with customers are women, said manager and server Kate Cheney. Their hours have been cut significantly. Meanwhile, all but one of the workers in the kitchen are men, and a lot of them have been able to continue working to supply takeout orders. That divide is common in the restaurant industry.

For the first time in her life, Cheney is facing the possibility that she cannot afford rent at her St. Paul apartment. There was an issue with her unemployment insurance application and she hasn't received a payment yet. She applied for a loan, and is worried about her credit score. She planned to buy a home in a couple of years.

"We need this money now, so we don't get behind. So we don't ruin our futures," she said.

In the second week of March, before coronavirus closures started in earnest, just one-third of people applying for unemployment insurance in Minnesota were women, according to data from the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). That spiked to 63% the following week.

The jump was likely due in part to a high number of workers seeking help from the leisure, hospitality and personal services industries, all sectors with large portions of female employees, according to DEED spokeswoman Rita Beatty. However, the numbers started to level off the week ending March 28, when women made up 54% of applicants. Beatty said that's likely because of an increase in applications from male-dominated fields, such as manufacturing and construction.

The rule of thumb is people should have three to six months of income to fall back on, but many people don't have that safety net, said Susan Brinkhaus, executive director of the Salon and Spa Professional Association. Cosmetologists, hairdressers and hairstylists earn a median of $13.38 an hour in Minnesota, according to DEED.

"This is going to change the face of the salon industry. Things will be different," Brinkhaus said. Some salons will close and independent contractors could go back to working as employees, she predicted.

In some female-dominated sectors, COVID-19 is exacerbating long-standing problems.

Workers in the home-care field long have been underpaid, and small home-care agencies often don't provide staff health insurance or paid sick time, said Kathy Messerli, director of the Minnesota HomeCare Association. DEED median wage data show personal- and home-care aides make just $12.78 an hour. Medicare and Medical Assistance reimbursement reform is needed to address those problems, she said.

Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that he would like to raise the minimum wage for personal-care assistants to $15 an hour. But that would cost around $300 million, Walz said, and Minnesota would require "the might of the federal government" to act on that.

For many families, Walz extended a lifeline by requiring otherwise shuttered schools to continue providing care for the children of emergency workers, such as nurses, home-care aids and nursing home staff.

Minnesota statistics show child-care duties are often split equally between heterosexual couples when both the man and woman are working full time, Ewig said. However, she said women take on the lion's share of housework and elder care. As most school-age children are forced to stay home and parents are sidelined, Ewig said a social experiment is taking place to see how people share the work.

Emily Allen, of Cottage Grove, is balancing 12-hour shifts as a nurse at a hospital for severely ill COVID-19 patients with helping care for three children ages 4 and younger.

Her parents and husband, who works 12-hour shifts as a police officer, share the responsibility. But kids often gravitate to their mom first, Allen said. When it comes to juggling kids and work, she said, "That's just what we as women do. ... No matter what career field you are in, we've risen to the occasion."

But Allen's field is now more demanding than most. She spends her days at the newly converted Bethesda Hospital St. Paul directing other nurses and caring for patients. The nursing staff is almost entirely women.

It's still quiet enough that she has one-on-one time to spend with patients, washing their hair or rubbing their back. She knows that won't last long.

A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine assessed health care workers near the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, for anxiety, depression, insomnia, distress and post-traumatic stress symptoms and found high rates of all of those conditions. It found symptoms were higher among nurses, women and those caring directly for COVID-19 patients.

Allen said government leaders should make sure health care workers have resources to deal with the trauma they encounter. She said some nurses have tried working at Bethesda Hospital for a day and backed out. It was just too much.

"I don't really feel like there's a good support system in place for after we get through everything," Allen said. "I'm super scared every day I go to work. And you don't ever know what you're going to see."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044