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Senators: You can't let COVID-19 leave women and people of color behind

The Hill logo The Hill 8/1/2020 Debra L. Ness, Fatima Goss Graves and Rebecca Dixon, opinion contributors
a person in glasses looking at the camera: Senators: You can't let COVID-19 leave women and people of color behind © Getty Images Senators: You can't let COVID-19 leave women and people of color behind

This week, Senate Republicans demonstrated once again that they are not willing to act on behalf of the women in our country whose lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and who are facing the greatest financial devastation. In the midst of nationwide organizing to ensure people can make it through this crisis, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) COVID-19 recovery package, the HEALS Act, ignores the challenges that working people and those who are unemployed, in particular women and people of color, are facing as they manage the life-altering consequences that this pandemic has brought to their health, jobs, housing, family, education, job opportunities and long-term financial stability.

As workers and advocates have attested, COVID-19 has magnified pervasive structural racial, gender and economic inequities that unduly impact women of color and all women. Women are on the frontlines in this pandemic - they are grocery store clerks, restaurant cashiers, bus drivers, child care providers, cleaning staff, delivering food and nursing home workers. They are also working moms who are struggling to care for their children while working a fulltime job. They are also among the millions who have lost their jobs due to this pandemic.

This spring, the share of women in the workforce dropped below 50 percent for the first time in 40 years. Black women and Latinas are hit hardest by joblessness, with close to 1 in 7 Black women and Latinas - or more - being unemployed. Today, women are more likely to be in frontline positions, representing 64 percent of essential workers, which consequently means greater exposure to COVID-19. This pandemic threatens to turn back the clock on the progress women have made in the workforce over the last few decades.

While Congress expanded unemployment insurance benefits in the CARES Act earlier this year, beginning this coming week, this critical lifeline that has allowed people to pay their rent and put food on the table will be cut significantly. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 53 percent of workers receiving unemployment benefits and who may see their benefits cut are women and 47 percent are people of color.

People who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic must have the financial support to continue to cover basic needs. Without it workers will be left without any options to support themselves and their families.

At the same time, this pandemic has also been devastating for the women who are still employed. Women are being forced to make the impossible choice between taking time off work when they are sick, or need to care for a family member, and earning a paycheck. A recent poll found that 39 percent of women would put themselves at risk of exposing themselves to COVID-19 instead of missing work and a paycheck. This is deeply concerning for our public health given that the CDC recommends a person stay home and quarantine for 14 days if they contract COVID-19 or comes in contact with a person who has. Yet a recent study found that only 8 percent of frontline grocery and retail workers would have access to two weeks of leave from their employers and even worse.

Now more than ever, policymakers must support women in remaining in or reentering the workforce, as they do the essential work to hold this country up, by funding an effective and thriving child care system. Half of the child care providers in the United States were forced to close their doors in April. Moreover, for those providers that are reopening, the financial hit of reduced capacity and increased safety requirements will threaten their ability to continue to survive and also requires increased tuition, which may put child care out of reach for too many workers.

Earlier this year, the House passed the HEROES Act, which sought to address the challenges women are facing - skyrocketing unemployment, the lack of paid family and medical leave and the child care crisis. Now it's time for the Senate to finally prioritize women and address the pocketbook issues that they care about.

We are staring at the greatest economic crisis of our generation and potentially the greatest depression our country has ever faced, depending on the decisions that the federal government makes in the coming weeks. Instead of returning to the way things were, we must enact equitable policies that would enable all women, our communities and our economy to thrive. We cannot allow the mishandling of the pandemic by the Trump administration to undermine women's role in our workforce and economy. The consequences are too great.

Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. Fatima Goss Graves is the president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center. Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.


Video: 25 million Americans at risk of losing expiring unemployment benefits (ABC News)

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