COVID-19 has been battering the U.S. economy since cases started multiplying in March. An estimated 20.5 million workers lost their jobs in April alone, driving the unemployment rate up to 14.7% -- the highest figure on record since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that data back in 1948. But while Americans on a whole are hurting, women seem to be suffering the most.
Last month, the unemployment rate among women rose to 15.5%. For men, it increased to 13%.
Why the discrepancy? For one thing, women comprise the majority of employees in industries that have been hammered by COVID-19 -- think leisure and hospitality. Not only did numerous jobs in these sectors disappear, but they also aren't conducive to being done remotely. Throw in the fact that women are often charged with stepping up on the child care front as the need arises, and it's easy to see why so many more women lost their paychecks in the past number of weeks.
A long-lasting impact
Though it's easy to panic over current unemployment levels, once the COVID-19 crisis wanes and more and more states are able to reopen, there should, hopefully, be an uptick in jobs. But that doesn't help out-of-work women now. Even though some may be doing reasonably well on unemployment benefits, which have increased by $600 a week as part of the COVID-19 relief package approved in March, losing a job means losing health insurance -- an expense that many women are now forced to cover despite the loss of their paychecks. As such, a large number of women risk going into debt in an attempt to pay their bills plus secure health coverage at a time when not having insurance just isn't an option.
Furthermore, a stint of unemployment could further set women back in the long-term savings department. Because women earn less than men, they tend to lag in retirement savings. Taking a year, or even a partial year, off from IRA or 401(k) contributions could therefore be extremely detrimental to women's long-term financial security.
What will women's recovery look like?
The extent to which women are able to recover from the COVID-19 crisis may, to some degree, mirror men's experience. But some women may land in a situation where they're forced to accept lower-wage jobs once the economy opens back up, thereby prolonging their financial suffering and widening the much talked-about gender pay gap. Furthermore, the fact that so many women work in the hospitality and leisure sectors doesn't bode well, as these will likely be the last to recover fully.
Women who are out of work now because of COVID-19 should take the opportunity to boost their skills while they can so that when jobs open back up, they're more likely to not only get hired quickly, but perhaps snag an even higher wage than before. Of course, researching wage data is always a smart thing to do. That way, women who receive offers will know if they're getting shortchanged. But at a time when so many people are desperate, they may be less inclined to speak up about gender inequality, and that's a whole other type of recovery women will need to contend with.