One day in May, Tenia Hargett was preparing for a routine meeting with her manager at a physical therapy clinic. But instead of checking in with her boss, the human resources professional was called into a room with several managers at her workplace.
“They started talking and saying that they were doing budget cuts and decided to eliminate the position I had,” she said.
Hargett said she hopes she won't be unemployed for long, but the Louisville, Kentucky resident has applied for several jobs in the last two months, with no luck. As the unemployment rate remains above 10 percent as of July, millions of Americans like Hargett across a range of industries face financial uncertainty. The economic downfall brought on by the global pandemic, however, may further widen the racial and gendered pay gaps that already put Black women at a disadvantage.
To mark the pay gap, August 13 is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, which is the approximate point that, on average, Black women would have made the same amount of money that their white male counterpart would have made by the end of 2019—a whole eight months into the following year. It’s another way of illustrating that Black women in America earn, on average, 62 cents versus every dollar that a white man earns. For women, across all races, that figure is at about 82 cents.
Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women's Law Center, wrote ahead of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, that “lost earnings not only leave Black women without a financial cushion to weather the current crisis, it also makes it harder for Black women to build wealth, contributing to the racial wealth gap and barriers to Black families’ economic prosperity.” This is especially true for women in frontline jobs; women working as wait staff in restaurants lost $7,800 due to the existing wage gap. Black women working as teachers lost $14,200.
Nina Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University, notes the pay gap is “particularly distressing” because, in comparison to women of other races, Black women have always had higher labor force participation rates.
“Black women’s labor market position is the result of employer practices and government policies that disadvantaged Black women relative to white women and men,” she wrote for the Economic Policy Institute in 2019. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, founder and president of the Women's Institute for Science, Equity and Race, agreed. She said it’s important to consider “occupation segregation.” She describes the practice as “the limiting of the occupations that Black women have access to, especially [jobs] that are higher paid and have more autonomy,” when discussing the pay gap Black women face.
This will likely be further complicated by the current pandemic. Michelle Holder, assistant professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York, said “goods producing” jobs, which tend to be heavily populated by men are traditionally hit hardest during an economic downturn. But, this year, “service producing” industries, such as healthcare, education, retail and food services, where women make up large parts of the workforce, has been hit the hardest as a result of forced closures. She said the current economic downturn has also made it harder for workers to advocate for higher pay.
“While it’s difficult to say with certainty what impact COVID is going to have on Black women’s earning and wage disparities going forward, we certainly know it has interrupted the potential for Black women to increase or push for higher wages,” she said. “In a period where joblessness is low, workers have more leverage. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, the leverage that workers had, including Black women, has now been stymied.”
Holder said mass layoffs also have the potential to impact the pay gap. “In general, any interruption in the career trajectory of a worker has a dampening effect on their wages going forward,” she said. “What we don’t know, necessarily, is how long” people will be unemployed.
Hargett said the interruption in her own career has been “discouraging.” Her husband has considered getting a second job while she continues to look for a new job and receive unemployment benefits. And, after four years working in HR, Hargett said she’s contemplating leaving the field entirely, frustrated by the burnout she felt in her last position and the job hunt thus far.
Meanwhile, Holder said that as many Americans are also discussing racial equity, people can put pressure on corporations to evaluate their pay structures to see if women of color are being paid fairly. “It can be done so easily but corporate America has to be pressured to do it,” she said. Whenever the pandemic ends, Holder said, the country will also need to revisit its federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25.
Tucker said she hopes the country uses this moment to realize all of the ways Black women are undervalued, especially in the workplace. “If this is not the time to fix it, when is it going to be the time? When is it going to be more dire or more clear?”