The economy has greatly improved from the worst months of job loss last spring, but millions of people are still out of work. And neither the initial losses nor the subsequent gains have been spread evenly.
As a proportion of their employment levels before the pandemic, significantly fewer Black and Hispanic women are working now than any other demographic, according to the latest government data — and women are lagging behind men across race and ethnicity.
Hispanic women fell into the deepest hole at the peak of the job losses, going from 12.4 million workers in February 2020, the last month of job gains before the pandemic, to 9.4 million in April — a 24% drop. No demographic has returned to prepandemic employment levels, the data reveals, but significant differences remain. There are nearly 10% fewer employed Black women than a year ago, but only 5% fewer employed white men.
Research has shown that some of the disproportionate impact on women was driven by the need to care for children during the pandemic, a circumstance that is often not captured in the official unemployment rate, which accounts only for people actively seeking work. Even among women, however, white women have not experienced the same changes in employment levels as women of color.
One reason for this pattern is that women of color tend to work in the industries that have been felt the most impact, said Kathryn Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corp. “What’s happening this recession that is special is a real decline in service and leisure and hospitality, which means the most affected people this recession are the people who work in that sector, who are disproportionately women of color,” she said.
Comparing the percentage change in employment totals from a year ago is a useful bench mark for how hard the pandemic hit the American workforce. But to see how the recovery is worsening inequality in the economy, it’s important to look at where different groups started from.
One way to see disparities in employment that existed well before the pandemic is to look at the share who are employed among the working age population in each demographic over time. This measure, known as the employment-population ratio, has long been lower for women and Black men.
Race and gender are not the only demographic categories across which job loss has hit workers unevenly.
Workers on the older and younger ends of the spectrum also experienced outsize losses. Younger people, who also tend to be overrepresented in some of the most affected industries like food service, were much more likely to lose work early in the outbreak and are still among the farthest from their prepandemic employment levels. However, they have regained jobs more rapidly than older people, who may be more wary of returning to work and increasing their exposure to the coronavirus.
Across different education levels, those who had a bachelor’s or an advanced degree were less likely to lose their jobs initially and, among all demographic categories, have come closest to their prepandemic levels of employment. Jobs that can be done remotely, such as office or tech jobs, tend to employ people with higher education, which may explain some of this pattern, Edwards said.
One common feature is that many people who lost jobs earned low wages. According to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning research group, workers in the lowest quartile of earners lost almost 8 million jobs from 2019 to 2020, while the highest wage earners gained jobs.
The demographic makeup of the workers who are still not back at work reflects the unique nature of this recession. But recessions also put pressure on the cracks in our economy that already existed, Edwards said. “The shock is that there’s a pandemic and we have to shut down, but that doesn’t happen out of context, what was already going on in our economy,” she said.
The latest monthly jobs report, released on Friday, showed that hiring had increased only incrementally, raising questions about the speed and strength of the economic recovery. The vaccine rollout has provided hope that life may return to some sense of normalcy soon, but if the recovery remains lopsided, the economy is in danger of leaving many people even farther behind than they were when this crisis began.