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Women of color hardest hit by pandemic joblessness

“I never imagined that at 22 years old I’d be laid off, applying for unemployment...Where do I go from here?”
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Millions of Americans are suffering financially due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Black and Latinx women are experiencing job loss at higher levels than their white counterparts. For some women of color, unemployment has already struck more than once during the crisis. Many are struggling to find work in an increasingly tough economy.

Isabella Travieso, a 22-year-old Cuban American recent college graduate living in Miami, has been laid off twice. She lost her job as an account manager at a merchant services provider back in March. She quickly found new work as an agent at an employment center, only to almost immediately be made redundant.

“It’s been very difficult,” Travieso told NBC News on "Global Hangout." “I never imagined that at 22 years old I’d be laid off, applying for unemployment. I was at the prime of starting my career. Where do I go from here?”

Currently relying on the little savings she has to get by, Travieso said she is worried that when the lease on her apartment is up this September, it will be challenging to find a new place to live without a steady job.

Like many women across the country, she faces the additional stress of job-hunting while looking after sick family members. Travieso’s father is immunocompromised; when her grandmother contracted COVID-19, the burden of caregiving fell on her.

“I'd go to help my grandmother, but I couldn't really devote all my time there,” Travieso, who also contracted the coronavirus, explained. “I'm torn between having to look for work and take care of myself.”

Florida, Travieso’s home state, is experiencing some of the worst COVID-19 spikes in the country, with daily record case numbers last month and ICU bed shortages making headlines. Over 9,000 new cases were registered on Friday alone, and more than 7,000 Floridians have died. Meanwhile, threats of a second lockdown are putting extra pressure on businesses and depressing the job market further. It all adds up to a package of financial uncertainty.

No one is more uncertain than women of color, who are disadvantaged during the current crisis on several fronts: They have been historically more likely to be left out of financial recovery than white women, and systemic racism creates more negative health outcomes. Black and Latinx women also tend to disproportionately hold jobs that were deemed essential this spring, like hospital workers and grocery store check-out clerks, thus putting many of them on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, Randy Albelda, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, recently explained to Global Citizen. Others were employed in hard-hit sectors like hospitality and retail, which have seen massive layoffs.

Diana Yitbarek, 44, of Washington, DC, leaves the DC Department of Employment Services, after trying to find out about her unemployment benefits on July 16, 2020.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Further, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment data looks bad for all Americans, the situation for women of color is particularly bleak. The jobless rate for Black women aged 20 and over is one-fourth higher than the national average of all Americans in that same age group, and for Latinx women, the rate is just under 50 percent higher.

It looks like things will get worse before they get better.

The U.S. has experienced unprecedented levels of financial turmoil since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, suffering its worst period ever in the second quarter of 2020, with gross domestic product falling a historic 32.9 percent, new figures out this week show.

The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the U.S. labor market. Even when the U.S. was celebrating record-high job numbers, before the virus took hold, Black and Latinx people were lagging behind their white counterparts: At the start of 2020, the unemployment rate for Black workers was more than double that of white workers.

Jazzmin Kamau, 26, explains that as a young Black woman, she’s doubly concerned about navigating unemployment. She was laid off March 19, just as the pandemic set in. Kamau lives in New York, which became the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus crisis in April.

“We were never prepared for this,” Kamau, who worked in events management, said. “Not knowing what the future looks like or even where to go right now [to find work] is very stressful.”

Kamau, who had never experienced joblessness before, said the additional $600 a month federal government unemployment benefit — which expired Friday and has not been re-upped by Congress — has been helping offset her bills and the high cost of living in New York. Without it, she’s worried she’ll be reliant on the state unemployment benefit, which has been notoriously delayed during the pandemic. She said it took her five weeks to get her state unemployment check when she first applied three months ago.

“I don't want to be paid to stay at home. I've been working since [I was] 15 years old; I don't know what it's like to sit at home all day,” Kaumau explained. She added that she had intended to return to school in the new year, but the coronavirus has thrown her future plans into flux.

Michelle Holder, an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argued that it’s imperative that Congress step up and come to a bipartisan solution to stem the financial bleeding women are facing.

“Republicans have been very good at advancing this narrative that somehow $600 extra per week is luxurious, which it is not for most working families,” Holder said.

With phase 3 trials for a possible coronavirus vaccine beginning this week, Holder argued that Congress should feel confident that this pandemic has an endpoint.

“There's an end in sight,” she said. “It's not as if the additional assistance from the government is going to continue on in an indeterminate fashion.”

For Travieso and Kamau, the negative impact of the pandemic will last far longer — both emotionally and financially.

“It's scary and nerve-wracking not knowing how I'm going to move forward,” Kamau said.

What the country does to help them now may determine how an entire generation of Black and Latinx women succeed in the future.