This week’s passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) is a significant victory in the movement for a more fair and equitable economy. After over a year of disproportionate blows to womens’ health and economic well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing recession, the bill will strengthen existing equal pay laws, give women more legal tools to fight against unequal pay, hold companies accountable, and put millions of women on the path to economic justice. Led by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and 225 co-sponsors, H.R. 7 guarantees women can challenge unequal pay without retaliation, bans salary history questions upon hiring, reinstates gender wage data collection, and more.
The pandemic has increased the urgency and economic imperative of ensuring equal pay, because of how pre-existing inequities have been compounded. The women of color who have long been subject to the harshest pay inequities are now those hit the hardest by all aspects of the COVID-19 health and economic crises. While the PFA is only one component of resolving injustice, this commentary explains why the absence of its provisions has contributed to the outcomes of the past year, why equal pay is critical for an equitable economic recovery, and what complementary actions should be taken.
Pay Inequity Has Made the COVID-19 Pandemic Harder for Women of Color
The latest data show that Latina women are paid $0.55, Native women $0.60, Black women $.63 cents, and Asian and Pacific Islander women $0.85 for every dollar that men were paid, on average, in 2020, with additional disparities among disabled, undocumented, and LGBTQ+ women. These gaps cost women as a whole an aggregate of $950 billion, or more than $10,000 per person per year, on average. But the cost is much, much higher for women of color: due to even more dramatic pay inequity, Latinas lose $29,000 and Black women $24,000, on average, per year. Prior to the pandemic, these gaps contributed to women of color having higher levels of hunger, housing insecurity, and poverty throughout their lives, including during retirement, than any other group, due to a massive accumulation of losses over the course of their careers.
But the absence of fair pay during the COVID-19 pandemic has made these inequities even more dire in their consequences. The gaps have likely amounted to the difference between paying for food, housing, and health care for many women, or having to choose between them. Dramatic losses for women due to unequal pay beg the question of what it would be like in a fairer society and economy: how much more secure would women of color have been if circumstances allowed them to save up for a long spell of rainy days? How many more days could they have afforded to take off to care for themselves or loved ones, or to avoid exposure to a deadly virus?
Tradeoffs like these are more dire for those who have been hit the hardest by the latest economic downturn, namely women of color, who, in some months of the recession, accounted for every single job that was lost.
Tradeoffs like these are more dire for those who have been hit the hardest by the latest economic downturn, namely women of color, who, in some months of the recession, accounted for every single job that was lost. And still, one year into the pandemic and the related recession, Black women and Latinas still experience elevated levels of unemployment and long-term unemployment when compared to other groups. As has been widely documented, women and people of color have borne the brunt of both the economic and health crises—but the two cannot be separated. Women of color are less likely to have savings due to low and unequal pay, and thus do not have the option to take time off from work. They are also less likely to have benefits like paid leave or work from home options, which in the past year have proven to be life-saving. Even an otherwise hopeful sign of a narrowing pay gap in 2020 was driven by the travesty of low-wage job loss for women of color in retail, food service, care, and more.
Occupational Segregation Has Exacerbated Inequities during the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed even more plainly the inequities that exist in the U.S. labor market, and the ways in which it has always been skewed against women. Women are concentrated in jobs that do not pay family-sustaining wages, and are much more likely to get paid poverty-level wages, in part because work seen as women’s work has been systematically devalued, despite its often essential nature. This phenomenon, also known as occupational segregation, means that the higher share of women in certain occupations and sectors accounts for almost half of the gender pay gap between men and women.
The same dynamic that contributes to unequal pay and financial insecurity for women has also put women—and women of color in particular—on the front lines of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. Women accounted for almost 65 percent of all frontline workers, despite comprising less than 50 percent of the workforce; Black workers were also overrepresented in frontline jobs relative to their share of the labor force. More than one in three Black women have worked in frontline jobs during the pandemic, making less than male counterparts in every one of those jobs, while, as a group, being put more at risk of both the virus and job loss.
More than one in three Black women have worked in frontline jobs during the pandemic, making less than male counterparts in every one of those jobs, while, as a group, being put more at risk of both the virus and job loss.
Gender-disaggregated occupational data show that when doing the same work, women get paid less than men in nearly all—94 percent—of those occupations. Even in jobs in which women predominate, including nurses, teachers, and food service workers, women are paid up to 22 percent less than men. For the occupations in which women of color are most represented, including home health aides and cleaners, workers are paid poverty wages ($13/hr for health aides, and $12 for cleaners, on average), while, on top of that injustice, getting paid 10 to 20 percent less than their male counterparts.
The Lack of a Care Infrastructure Contributes to Unequal Pay
A lack of care infrastructure both contributes to the wage gap (for example, full-time working mothers being paid only $0.75 on every dollar that working fathers make) and makes the pandemic unbearably difficult for mothers and other caregivers. The lack of accessible care has always put women behind, but in the absence of in-person school and child care, women have assumed a majority of caregiving responsibilities at home, setting women’s labor force progress back by decades. More than two million women have dropped out of the labor force in the past year, largely due to lack of child care.
While unsafe work conditions due to the pandemic have not helped, the underlying combination of too-high costs or unavailability of care on the one hand, and the too-low and unfair pay that often incentivizes women to leave their jobs instead of their partners on the other, has been a significant factor. This catch-22 more often plagues women of color, who are more likely to live in places where child care was not available in the first place, despite almost 80 percent of Black mothers being family breadwinners. And as a recent Century Foundation and Center for American Progress report estimates, these trends harm women in terms of security, wages, and career options, but also generate billions of dollars of losses for the economy overall each year.
Closing the Gender Pay Gap is Critical for Building Back Better
Pay inequity thrives on, and exacerbates, gender and racial inequities, and there is little reason to think that there can be a just recovery from the COVID-19 recession without intentionally demanding and enforcing equal pay. The PFA is a necessary precursor to that equitable recovery. Banning salary histories will ensure that previous discrimination does not follow women throughout their careers, and requiring gender wage data collection from companies will allow researchers and policymakers to track and ensure progress, while also holding companies accountable for unfair practices.
Banning salary histories will ensure that previous discrimination does not follow women throughout their careers, and requiring gender wage data collection from companies will allow researchers and policymakers to track and ensure progress, while also holding companies accountable for unfair practices.
But equal pay is just one component of a recovery that moves toward a fairer economy—one that pays living wages for essential work and ensures that future recessions won’t be so incredibly unequal for and harmful to women. There is, of course, a lot of work to be done, not least including raising the minimum wage; forging a path to higher union density, which is associated with fairer and higher pay; making paid leave accessible to all workers; and investing in a robust care economy that values all forms of womens’ paid and unpaid labor.
header photo: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol January 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. Source: Alex wong/getty images.