Women, and particularly women of color, in Minnesota are not only more likely to work in essential jobs at greater risk for exposure to the coronavirus, but have also have been disproportionately affected by layoffs during the pandemic.
That is one of the major findings of a new report on the unequal impacts of the pandemic from the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
"There is a dual vulnerability, especially for women of color," said Christina Ewig, the director of the center and the lead researcher on the report.
And it could have long-lasting repercussions, she said, on health and economic prospects.
In addition, the report found that while industry and occupation could account for some of the disparities in job losses, not all of it could be explained through those lenses, particularly when it came to higher-than-expected losses for women as a whole as well as among Black men. Other factors could be in play, the report said, such as women being more likely to have part-time jobs, which are often the first to go in a crisis.
"But I do think there's probably one driver that accounts for at least a portion of this, which is discrimination," Ewig said.
She worked with two graduate students over the summer to conduct a detailed analysis of the impact of workplace closures and other economic fallout from the first wave of the pandemic. They used occupation and industry data from the Census Bureau, unemployment insurance claims from the state, and interviews with social-service organizations and unions to put together the report.
While there are other data sources — such as the Minnesota dashboard put out by the state — that provide a racial breakdown of the number of COVID-19 cases and unemployment claims, Ewig said her report was the first she was aware of to look at the economic impact through the lens of both race and gender in Minnesota.
In the first months of the pandemic as Gov. Tim Walz put a stay-at-home order into place, it became clear from the outset that both women and people of color were being disproportionately affected by job losses. So far this year, more than half of all Black workers in the state have filed unemployment applications, the highest among all racial groups.
One of the reasons for the disparities is that women and people of color are concentrated in many service industry jobs that have been shut down at different times throughout the pandemic.
At the same time, the report from the U shows that women in Minnesota are also highly represented in many of the high-risk essential jobs that continued to operate during the pandemic, such as in health care. About 40% of Asian women, 37% of Native American women and 30% of Somali women in the workforce fall into this high-risk category, according to the report.
Many of these populations are also more likely to live in multigenerational housing, which provided more stress for essential workers who worried about possibly spreading the virus to older family members they lived with at home, Ewig said.
She added that a biannual report the center also helps produce shows that women of color continue to make less money compared with their white male counterparts.
"A lot of community-service organizations and leaders were saying [in our interviews] that here we are depending on the lowest-paid members of our society for our health and work," she said.
Meanwhile, the report found that other demographic groups such as white men are more likely to work in low-risk essential positions, such as in construction, or have been more able to work from home. Workers with a bachelor's degree are more likely to be able to work from home compared to those with only a high school diploma.
The report said that the unemployment insurance system, including enhanced federal benefits through the summer, helped provide an important safety net for affected workers. However, it noted that undocumented and homeless workers could not access those benefits.
The availability of protective equipment as well as safe, affordable child care were two other big pain points identified by the report, both of which Ewig said disproportionately affect women because they work in the highest-risk occupations and because child care tends to fall the most on women.
The report recommends policies such as making undocumented workers eligible for future relief programs, making paid sick and family leave permanent, prioritizing child care and education planning in future emergencies, and decoupling health insurance from employment.
In recent weeks, the number of new or reactivated unemployment accounts in Minnesota has seen a significant increase as renewed business restrictions were put in place in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
While much of the research for the report was from the spring and summer, Ewig added that the state could see similar demographic disparities this winter from the new job losses.
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