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Economy & Labor , US

Breaking: Some States Show Alarming Spike in Women’s Share of Unemployment Claims

by Xanthe ScharffSarah Ryley April 8, 2020

Statistics obtained by The Fuller Project from several states show that the share of people who filed new unemployment claims who were women during the last two weeks of March surged from an estimated 13 to 35 percentage points above the norm for those states.

Elizabeth Holt lost her waitressing job at an Applebee’s in San Antonio, Texas on March 23, a few days after the mayor made all restaurants carry-out and delivery only in order to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Holt was the main provider for her blended family of eight. Her husband, a part-time dishwasher at the same restaurant, lost his job the same day.

“I have always, even as a server, paid all our bills on time, and was able to spoil our kids and give them what they needed,” Holt said. “Now, nothing. No income, our rent is $972, and I don’t have a dime to pay them.”

A record-shattering 8.7 million Americans put in new claims for unemployment benefits during the last two weeks of March, as governors state-by-state shut down schools and workplaces.

Statistics from several states, obtained by The Fuller Project, show women comprised a significant majority of unemployment claimants during the first weeks of the closures.

In Minnesota, New Jersey and Virginia, women were nearly two-thirds of the 267,000 new unemployment applicants during the week ending March 21, according to statistics provided by agencies from each state. That’s an estimated 21 to 39 percentage points above what would be the norm for those states.

In New York, state data shows more than half of the 450,000 people who filed new claims for unemployment during the last two weeks of March were women. In the previous 25 years, their share of unemployment recipients that month had never been higher than 40 percent, federal data shows.

Oregon sent statistics that also indicate women became the majority of new unemployment applicants, whereas typically during the spring they are just over one-third of applicants.

Holt has been a waitress since she was 15, and she said it provided her steady work even through the worst of the Great Recession. But this economic crisis is different, driven entirely by health concerns, not normal economic forces. The blows — from the burden of caring for children suddenly out of school to the type of jobs that are seeing the most cuts — seem to be hitting women much harder.

Given the initial evidence of a surge in women’s unemployment, we need to know more about who lost their jobs, and why, so we can give a lifeline to the workers who need it most.

Will relief dollars will miss the mark?

This data is readily available, in the unemployment databases of every state. Yet, billions of dollars’ worth of coronavirus relief is being legislated right now, in the complete absence of this information. Advocacy groups say the relief dollars will miss the mark.

For instance, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires certain employers to provide paid or partially-paid leave for pandemic-related reasons, such as if the employee or a family member who requires care becomes ill. It provides for up to 12 weeks of partially-paid leave from work to care for children home from school. 

But exemptions mean that employers of as many as 80 percent of the workforce do not have to provide these protections. This includes healthcare companies and large restaurant, retail, and hospitality chains — all major employers of women that were hit particularly hard by the coronavirus shutdowns.

In Oregon, the “accommodations and food services” and “healthcare and social assistance” sectors employ one-third of the state’s working women. During the last week of February, 16 percent of the new claims came from these sectors. During the last two weeks of March, it shot up to 50 percent, according to Oregon’s Employment Department.

In Virginia, 33 percent of the new claimants during the week ending March 21 were from the food service sector. In New Jersey, 40 percent. 

Difficulty with childcare was already holding many mothers back from working or advancing in their career. After coronavirus, schools were shut down in every state and territory, creating a childcare catastrophe.

In Minnesota, the week schools closed, women’s share of new unemployment claims shot up to 63 percent — 42 percentage points higher than during the last week of February. Governor Tim Walz didn’t shut down all but essential workplaces until the following week.

Minnesota’s online unemployment application has a section for coronavirus-related job losses that asks if the inability to find childcare was a factor.

That means Minnesota, and other states, could provide data on exactly how many men and women had to leave work simply to care for their kids.

Single moms, who head 23 percent of households with children, are in particularly vulnerable financial situations, and are getting less federal rebate than their married counterparts. Black and Latina single moms are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, including at the large retail, restaurant and hospitality chains exempted in the relief packages.

Then there are the millions of under-the-table workers, predominantly women and people of color, now in financial peril, with no way of benefiting from the relief packages.

“There is nothing available to this workforce and they are essentially holding our country together through the crisis,” Ai-Jen Poo, cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said.

The Alliance started conducting weekly surveys on the impact coronavirus is having  on domestic workers. Their most recent results found 72 percent of respondents without jobs this week. Most are the primary breadwinners for their families, and overwhelmingly said they didn’t know how they would afford food. More than half were unable to pay April’s rent. 

Single moms head nearly one-quarter of all U.S. households with children, and are more likely to be in poverty than their married counterparts. (Thomas Hawk / CC BY-NC)

Without smart, targeted relief, coronavirus is predicted to increase income inequality, hitting the vulnerable in society along gender, racial and ethnic lines.

Members of Congress have already called for the release of federal data about coronavirus infections by race and ethnicity. They should also call for data that gives insight into who has lost their jobs because of the virus, and if certain groups have been left out of the relief packages that have been passed. That’s the only way they will be able to fill the gaping holes with the next round of relief.

The U.S. Labor Department is currently gathering demographic statistics from state agencies on the people receiving unemployment insurance for its monthly release of the “Characteristics of the Insured Unemployed” data.

Because this is the way it has always been done, the data will count the people who were receiving unemployment the week of the month that includes the 19th, which last month was March 15 through 21.

Demographic statistics

Most of the people who were receiving unemployment that week would have lost their jobs for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus. That same week, a record-shattering 2.9 million people filed new applications for unemployment, and the week after that, 5.8 million people.

The next unemployment insurance data will cover people who are receiving unemployment during the week of April 19 through 25.

The Labor Department also has no plans for any off-schedule releases specific to COVID-19, other than some “limited” information about the self-employed workers who are newly eligible for unemployment, spokesmen for the agency confirmed. 

But state agencies have in their possession, right now, data that offers extensive details on the people who lost their jobs during the first four weeks of a historic, cataclysmic economic collapse. 

These agencies should provide weekly demographic details from their unemployment databases throughout this crisis, in part because the systems in many states are so jammed that people who lost their jobs weeks ago still haven’t been able to file their claims.

Holt said she has been trying to file her unemployment claim every day since she lost her job more than two weeks ago, on March 23, but hasn’t been able to get through. 

“It keeps knocking me off,” she said. The response to her husband’s application estimates it could take up to four weeks to get $115 a week. 

Like in most states, Texas has been overwhelmed by the record number of applications it has been receiving by phone and online — nearly 300,000 the week Holt lost her job. “We have extended our hours of operation and are open Saturdays. We are hiring new staff. We are committed to helping every single Texan in need,” Cisco Gamez, a spokesman for the Texas Workforce Commission, said.

In the meantime, Holt said Applebee’s “gave us no help,” that would tide her family over.

Adding insult to injury, a few days later, Barry Beam, a vice president of operations for Applebee’s, posted on an employee Facebook group that everyone who had their hours cut or reduced were “now eligible” for half-off two meals a day, but with some restrictions: “For example, you can not order baby back ribs at 50% off,” wrote Beam, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Xanthe Scharff is CEO of The Fuller Project, a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to reporting on women. 

Sarah Ryley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning data and investigative journalist, is a contributor to The Fuller Project. 

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