Women’s work makes coronavirus a ‘gendered crisis’

By Anna Wolfe

Rachel Stokes McCarty, a cashier at a Dollar General in Jackson, and thousands of women like her represent the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis in Mississippi.

McCarty wears white disposable gloves and a warm smile for hours everyday at the store, where she greets anxious shoppers. She loves her job and the opportunity to brighten a stranger’s day, but as the the number of cases climb, McCarty said she would stay home if she could.

“If I didn’t have bills, or think I would lose my position or my job, I wouldn’t (be here),” she said. “I worked too hard to get to where I’m at. This job is everything to me.”

Women dominate workforces of some of the hardest hit industries. These include the health care workers directly tackling the virus, the retail store employees bagging items as folks hoard supplies and food service workers losing their jobs all together.

“Women’s labor is really what keeps our nation and the economy running,” said Cassandra Welchlin, co-founder and director of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative.

But women are “occupationally segregated in low wage jobs,” Welchlin said, and low-income women of color in particular are most likely to be breadwinners in their families.

“At the same time, they’re incredibly vulnerable to pay discrimination and the economic and health impacts of COVID-19 crises,” Welchlin said.

About eight out of every 10 cashiers in Mississippi are women, according to data from Current Population Survey, a joint survey by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.* The state’s roughly 40,000 cashiers earn a median hourly wage of $9.01-an-hour, not even two dollars above minimum wage.

Ten percent, or nearly 3,500 of those women, are over 55 years old and at greater risk of severe symptoms if they contract the virus.

“This is definitely a gendered crisis,” Welchlin said.

Women are also testing positive for the disease and becoming hospitalized at higher rates than men, though men appear to be dying more often nationally. A patchwork of early data shows African Americans are disproportionately impacted, representing 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Chicago despite comprising less than 30 percent of the city’s population, for example.

Through the beginning of April, nearly 60 percent of people with COVID-19 and people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Mississippi were women. The state health department does not publish a racial breakdown of cases or any demographic breakdown of deaths; Mississippi Today has requested the information.

McCarty, who is studying business with the help of Dollar General, appreciates her company’s decision to offer bonuses to its employees in May, but wishes the resources were available sooner.

“It’s not just Dollar General. I feel like everything should shut down for two weeks,” McCarty said. “I believe that’s how we’re going to control it in our city.”

Christy, who wished to be identified by her first name for fear of workplace retaliation, said she works with mostly other women at Walmart, the state’s largest private employer. She says a coworker at her store in south Mississippi tested positive for coronavirus but that management has provided little information, including the department where the person worked.

“They basically tell us to wash our hands. They didn’t have any hand sanitizer or disinfectant because it was all sold out,” she said.

Christy has a compromised immune system and chose to take unpaid leave, something she’s only able to do thanks to the income tax refund she received shortly before the virus hit Mississippi. Since she left work two weeks ago, Walmart has instituted more safety measures — such as taking the temperatures of employers as they report to the job, providing them masks and gloves and installing sneeze guards at checkout stations — which should roll out in coming weeks.

Walmart announced it is installing sneeze guards at checkout stations in its stores in hopes of controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Walmart spokesperson Casey Staheli said the company has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He also said the store is not releasing information about positive cases at its locations, as some other companies have done, and directed Mississippi Today to the state health department.

Mississippi State Health Department spokesperson Crystal Quarels said the agency does not release “information based off of places of business or organizations”; Mississippi Today has submitted a records request for the reports.

“They’re putting themselves at risk,” Welchlin said of workers. “It’s very concerning when they don’t have the choices to be able to take off.”

Current Population Survey data shows women also represent about 90 percent of the nearly 64,000 registered nurses, licensed nurses, medical assistants and home health aides who are directly tackling the pandemic in Mississippi. One north Mississippi doctor, Dr. Samantha Houston, told Mississippi Today that while she had access to masks that kept her protected, she “felt like the nurses were not as safe.” 

Beyond health concerns, these frontline workers with children also face a conundrum now that schools across the state have closed. And with women bearing most of the responsibility for child care, the closures are another way the pandemic disproportionately affects women. Christy said she’s uncomfortable leaving her teenage daughter at home alone all day.

“What’s really worrisome to me and heartbreaking is most of us are single mothers. So where are we supposed to send our children? A lot of our coworkers don’t have anybody that they can rely on to watch their children,” Christy said. “It’s making moms have to make really hard decisions.”

Women working in the private sector aren’t the only ones impacted. Gov. Tate Reeves issued an order allowing state agencies to pay administrative leave to state workers — 62 percent of whom are women, according to the Mississippi State Personnel Board — if their employment is impacted by COVID-19. But some department officials haven’t provided the additional leave to many essential workers who must stay home with their kids.

“The people that control the state have a tendency of treating our state employees as though they are commodities,” said Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, which represents state workers.

Other departments are plagued by disorganization and miscommunication, according to interviews with workers, increasing anxieties for some employees.

While some of the state’s lowest paid caseworkers must continue delivering vital services to Mississippi’s most vulnerable citizens, “the department heads are making the decisions from their cushy homes,” said Bettye White, who works in the disability determination department of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitative Services.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Bettye White, a disability adjudicator with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation, is one of many state employees deemed essential during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

White was allowed to stay home during the first two weeks after the virus hit Mississippi. Her supervisor gave her three options after that: report back to work, transport her desktop computer to her house so she can work from home, or take personal leave, text messages White provided to Mississippi Today show.

White doesn’t have the required ethernet connection at her home and she worries about bringing sensitive information about her clients out of the state office. She also fears she’ll be exposed to the virus at her building where she said 300 other people, mostly women, work. Nor does she want to put her son, who has asthma, at greater risk. But her personal paid leave won’t last more than a week — two if she works half days — far less than the likely duration of the pandemic.

Contacted about White’s situation, Chris Howard, rehabilitation services director, told Mississippi Today that no employees should have to use personal leave while dealing with COVID-19, and that he would work to correct any misinformation among supervisors.

Women also represent over 70 percent of food prep workers and servers, many of whom lost their jobs after restaurants closed in response to the virus. The data also contradicts a common misconception that these low-wage workers are mostly teenagers gaining work experience: About one-in-five of these workers are under 20 years old and about the same percentage are 50 or older.

When at work, these food workers earn a median hourly wage of just $9.15, not enough to save much for emergencies.

“I’ve worked everyday since I was 16,” said Angela Aaron, a Batesville mother of three who abruptly lost her job as a waitress in late March after her restaurant closed. “I’m 27. Literally, I would go back 2 weeks after I had my kids.”

She drained what little savings she had recently when her car broke down and had to buy a new one for her 30 minute work commute to Oxford five days a week.

It took a week for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which has had trouble handling a record-breaking number of unemployment claims, to process Aaron’s application.

Federal legislation increases Mississippi’s weekly unemployment benefit by $600 — nearly tripling the normal maximum amount of $235 per week —  for four months as workers grapple with lost employment.

Aaron received her first check last Tuesday, for $235, which will barely put a dent in her monthly bills of roughly $1,700. State employment officials told Mississippi Today Monday they don’t know when the increased payment will kick in.

The federal coronavirus response package also offers a one-time $1,200 stimulus check to every eligible adult, paid sick and family leave, an increase in food assistance and expansion of unemployment eligibility. Advocates worry the temporary relief — which strengthens an otherwise flimsy national safety net — will be gone before many can recover from the likely impending recession. But the new policies could also provide a road map forward.

“I think what they have done is the example of what can be done long term. That is the structural solution, but it needs to go into effect from now on,” Welchlin said. “It doesn’t need to go back to business as usual.”

A few weeks ago, while Christy was collecting items for an online order at the store, a customer approached her to thank her for putting herself at risk to do her job.

“I said, ‘Thank you,’ but at the same time, it’s not because I want to be here. They don’t give us any other options basically,” Christy said. “You have to come to work if you want to get paid and feed your kids, if you want to pay your bills.”

“We didn’t sign up to be heroes,” she added.

*The Current Population Survey is the nation’s primary source for statistics about the labor force. Mississippi Today pulled the data using the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) at Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.