The Pandemic, Unemployment, Health Disparities, and Legislation: Marginalized Communities Face Disparate Impacts and Outcomes
By Lauryn Hill
In loving memory of Eula M. Welch.
After a tough year of dealing with COVID-19, families across the world have been forced to deal with the harsh realities of a global pandemic. Many families have lost loved ones, students of all kinds have lost out on special ceremonies, and many people are struggling with how to adapt with getting back into a “normal” routine. Focusing on a smaller scale, the United States had a rough presidential election, and there has been an uprising in anti-police brutality protests to fight social justice and racial inequalities.
While all of these events have been happening simultaneously, individuals and families have also had to face another issue that has skyrocketed because of the pandemic – unemployment. With the closure of many businesses in early 2020, individuals that were providing for themselves or a family found themselves in a hard spot due to being furloughed, laid off, and even fired. More importantly, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have found themselves disproportionately affected by all of these events. With all of these factors combined, how do the numbers and trends of unemployment paint a story about families that have been affected by unemployment and economic forces beyond their control?
The recovery process from a tumultuous year across racial/ethnic groups has shown how unemployment in 2020 has hit hard for some groups, and even harder for others. According to Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of third- and fourth-quarter 2020 data, unemployment rates remained above 10% for all racial/ethnic groups except white Americans Hispanic unemployment remained 60% higher than white unemployment, while Black unemployment rose from 60% higher to 90% higher. If we analyze unemployment on a state level, the on-going issues in America have hit the Black community hardest. Black workers faced unemployment rates of over 10% in 16 of the 22 states (including the District of Columbia) for which unemployment data for Black workers was available. Unemployment rates were also highest for Black workers in Pennsylvania (19.5%), Michigan (17.9%), Illinois (15.7%) and the District of Columbia (15.6%). 
These numbers are staggering when realizing that the Black population for Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois is under 15%, respectively. The Black population in the District of Columbia is 46%, but Black workers were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers in the District of Columbia and four states: Alabama, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas. If you are wondering why there is no data for Indiana and other states, it is because the sample sizes for the racial categories were not large enough to create accurate unemployment rates. The data that is available suggests that the United States not only has an unemployment issue, but many Americans that are not white are struggling more than their white counterparts. When factoring in poverty and the lack of assistance that often rocks marginalized communities, the issue becomes even more pronounced.
Let’s set up an equation to help us understand this disparity. Healthcare in the United States is tied to employment + Black and Hispanic communities are facing higher unemployment rates added with the systemic healthcare disparities for non-white populations = a disaster in the midst of a pandemic. If people do not have jobs, especially during a pandemic, then they cannot care for their health or their loved ones. According to data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 hospitalization rates among non-Hispanic Black people were about 4.7 times the rate of non-Hispanic white people. These rates are due to racial and ethnic health disparities, which involve discrimination, disparate health access, occupational segregation (many Black people work in occupations such as healthcare facilities, factories, groceries stores, etc. which put them at higher risk of contracting COVID), educational inequities, income and wealth gaps, and housing that is more often in impoverished areas. Even though there has been a collective goal to tame COVID, these minority communities often suffer from unintentional harm. An example would be when COVID first started and many people lost their jobs in order to slow the spread of COVID, but this created a situation of lost wages, reduced access to services, and overall stress, which then plays into the cycle of poverty, lack of health resources, and unemployment.
Now that we have seen how minority communities have been directly affected by unemployment and health disparities brought on by COVID, plus pre-pandemic obstacles such as poverty, racism, and lack of access to quality resources, how can we prepare to rebuild a broken bridge that will connect these communities to a quality way of life? Policymakers must be willing to do right by these communities that are suffering. This may mean passing legislation that offers financial assistance to families on a weekly basis, like the American Rescue Plan, which aimed to address health disparities in BIPOC communities, provided protections for workers, included another stimulus check, extended financial assistance for workers who have exhausted their regular unemployment compensation benefits, and extended the additional $300 on top of existing unemployment benefits until September 6th. Communities impacted by these disparities need more time to recover than Indiana’s planned cut off of federal benefits on June 19, 2021. Additionally, disparities still exists within the BIPOC community even with additional help from legislation. These disparities need to be examined before the American Rescue Plan runs out and that may require collecting more unemployment data strictly about BIPOC to paint a clearer picture of exactly how BIPOC are affected by the pandemic and unemployment. Until our country focuses on these disparities, these issues will continue to bleed into other areas of ordinary life for many BIPOC.
 Data by race was not available for Indiana: “In many states, the sample sizes of particular subgroups are not large enough to create accurate estimates of their unemployment rates. We report data only for groups that had, on average, a sample size of at least 700 in the labor force for each six-month period.”
Paid Leave Legislation
Rep Campbell: Nearly every worker will - at some point - need to take time off to welcome a new baby, care for an aging loved one, or attend to their own serious medical need. #PaidLeave4Hoosers would allow Hoosiers to take that time to bond, heal, or provide care.
Q2. Right now, Indiana law guarantees workers zero days of #PaidLeave. What does that mean, exactly?
Rep Campbell: Not having #PaidLeave means that approximately 1 in 4 Hoosier women go back to work within 2 weeks of giving birth. It means Hoosiers can’t follow doctors’ orders or experience financial crisis because they got sick. It means caregivers struggle to be there for those they love.
Q3. Do other countries offer #PaidLeave benefits?
Rep Campbell: Yes. The U.S. is the only industrialized country on the planet that doesn’t provide some sort of #PaidLeave to workers. Check out this World Policy Center map of countries that provide paid maternity leave, for example:
Q4. What makes a paid leave *program* a smart strategy to provide #PaidLeave4All?
Rep Campbell: Asking a small business to provide several weeks of #PaidLeave could be a heavy lift. With a #PaidLeave program, all workers & employers chip in a small amount each week to a fund, and the fund pays workers who need leave.
Q5. Do other states have #PaidLeave programs?
Rep Campbell: Yes, a growing number of states #PaidLeave programs. Currently, 9 states plus D.C. have adopted this approach & many others are actively working on similar legislation.
Q6. Tell us a little more about your #PaidLeave4Hoosiers legislation. What benefits would it provide?
Rep Campbell: It would provide up to 12 weeks of #PaidLeave per year to all Hoosier workers who become new, adoptive, or foster parents, who are dealing with a serious medical issue, or who are caring for a seriously ill loved one.
Q7. What are the benefits of #PaidLeave?
Rep Campbell: There are SO MANY! Having #PaidLeave means fewer workers fall into poverty & makes families stronger. Fewer moms experience postpartum depression & more infants receive well-child checks. More people can take care of their health & more families can care for aging loved ones.
Q8. What are the benefits of #PaidLeave for business?
Rep Campbell: For businesses, #PaidLeave improves employee productivity & morale while reducing turnover. Creating a #PaidLeave program would make this highly-sought-after benefit much easier to offer, especially for small businesses, helping with recruitment.
Q9. Would a paid leave program be helpful in a pandemic like the one we are experiencing now?
Rep Campbell: Absolutely! Anyone suffering an illness like COVID could receive #PaidLeave while sick or in the hospital. The bill also allows flexibility during public health emergencies to cover things like school closures. And #PaidLeave can prevent spread!
Q10. What kind of feedback have you gotten on this #PaidLeave proposal? Hoosiers, what feedback do you have?
Rep Campbell: Everyone I've talked to about this program have been very positive and have experienced times or know others who would have benefitted from this type of program!
Q11. What can Hoosiers who support #PaidLeave do to help?
Rep Campbell: Hoosiers, if you support #PaidLeave, you can call and email your state representatives and ask them if they will coauthor my legislation. You can find your representatives here: http://iga.in.gov/legislative/find-legislators/
Also, sharing your personal story - whether you had #PaidLeave & it was helpful or you didn’t & it would have been helpful – can help convince lawmakers to act.
To close our chat today, we have a great surprise for you all!! While Rep Campbell will be fighting for #PaidLeave in the Indiana House of Representatives, Senator Yoder will be filing #PaidLeave legislation in the Senate! Thank you Senator Yoder!
Senator Yoder: It is my pleasure! This is such an important issue.
Q1. We know you were limited in what you could choose to work on this session. Why did #PaidLeave rise to the top of your list?
Senator Yoder: COVID-19 has really highlighted how important it is for people to be able to care – for children, spouses, parents, or your own health. With a #PaidLeave program, we can ensure that more Hoosiers are able to be there for their health or their family w/out sacrificing financial stability.
Q2. Which of the many potential benefits of #PaidLeave is most meaningful to you?
Senator Yoder: Seeing families who couldn’t be with a family member who died of COVID, I know it’s so essential to be able to provide care to a seriously ill family member & be there at the end of life. #PaidFamilyLeave erases the financial barrier standing in the way of doing this.
Q3. What kind of support would you like from Hoosiers this session?
Senator Yoder: This bill will go to the labor committee, so letting Chairman Boots know that #PaidLeave matters & that he should give it a hearing would be most helpful. Here is his contact info: https://www.indianasenaterepublicans.com/boots
Ok, Hoosiers, you have your marching orders! If you’d like to receive updates on other actions you can take to advance #PaidLeave4Hoosiers, please sign up here: https://groups.google.com/g/inpaidleave
This conversation originally appeared as a Twitter chat between @INInstitute @campbellh26 and @SenatorYoder on 12/9/2020.
By Tia Washum
To be a productive member of society, sometimes you must take care of yourself first. For some, this is nearly impossible. How can you care for yourself when you have limited resources and choices due to low wages and lack of benefits like paid leave? Imagine if, daily, you had to experience the constant questions: “How am I going to survive? How do I pay the rent? How do I afford gas for my car when my expenses are higher than my paycheck?”
Some of our neighbors exist; they do not really get an opportunity to live. Daily life is full of uncertainty, and emotions range from terror to depression.
Why does America spend more money on health care per person than other countries, but still our American people are struggling - especially people of color and low-income individuals? The United States actually performs worse than other comparable countries on some common health metrics like how long people live, how many infants die, and how many people struggle with diabetes and other health issues. Paid leave is part of the answer. When workers do not have the leave they need -- most often because they could not afford unpaid leave -- they may defer or forego necessary medical treatment. Paid leave also increases rates and duration of breastfeeding, improves rates of on-time vaccination, reduces infant hospital admissions, and reduces the odds of a new mother experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression and improves new mothers’ health.
Paid leave should be available to support mental health, too, especially in caregiving occupations. When you give so much of yourself in your work, you need time to replenish or else you will be empty. Businesses want productivity; they need to be willing to give opportunities to recharge and renew motivation. Paid leave has been shown to prevent employees from quitting and increases their loyalty to their place of employment.
Hoosier Women Sound the Alarm:
COVID-19, Job Losses, & Financial Black Holes
Throughout the pandemic, staff at the Indiana Institute for Working Families have been surveying and interviewing Hoosiers across the state about their financial well-being. Recent responses from Hoosier women raise alarm bells and add nuance to what we have seen emerging in other forms of state and national data.
The evidence is mounting: While men may be more likely to suffer poor health outcomes from COVID-19, women are more likely to suffer from its economic impacts. Given that Hoosier women earned less, owned less, and were more likely to experience poverty before the pandemic began, this is a troubling trend. Below, we offer a summary of what Hoosier women have been telling us.
Women Need - but are Losing - Jobs
Receiving the terrible news from an employer that the company is eliminating your position, putting you on furlough, cutting hours, or going out of business can spark a cascade of financial consequences. That is especially true for Hoosier households that lack the savings to go weeks without a paycheck. Prior to the pandemic, approximately four in ten Hoosier households lacked sufficient savings to weather a $400 emergency. During this pandemic-induced recession, job losses and cuts to hours happened on a massive scale, with more women than men experiencing lay-offs and heavier losses among Black and Latinx workers as well as low-income families: 28% of workers in families making <$40k lost jobs compared to 13% of workers in families making more than $100k/year. “I am a single parent with a baby and 2 school agers and I have no job,” a mom from Central Indiana shared, noting “I am use to working full time.” “My hours were cut for four months,” reported another Indianapolis woman who told us she is struggling to keep up with bills. Approximately four in ten Hoosier women has experienced a loss of employment income in their household since March 13, 2020 – and national data suggest Black women and Latinas have been hit even harder.
COVID-19 has hit a number of female-dominated occupations hard. Occupational segregation is high in categories like healthcare support, personal care and service, food preparation and serving and education and training. Continuing unemployment claims for the week ending October 3rd show that ‘accommodation and food service,’ ‘health care and social assistance,’ and ‘educational services’ categories made up nearly one in four claims. Even when their jobs were disrupted, white male workers were more likely to maintain ties to their employer, possibly increasing their chances of getting back to work quickly. By September, national unemployment rates for adult men (7.4%) and white workers (7.0%) trended lower than rates for adult women (7.7%), Black workers (12.1%) and Latinx workers (10.3%).
Beyond job losses and cuts to hours, demands at home are also pulling women out of the workforce. In July, 27% of working mothers reported that they expected to work less or stop working if schools did not have in-person classes versus 17% of working fathers; that appears to be bearing out, as in September, four times as many women as men left the workforce. A number of women told us about having to make impossible decisions because of caregiving needs. “I left my job because my son was premature and I didn’t want to get him sick,” reported a mom from Hamilton County. Another mom from Allen County shared that she was “concerned that I may have to quit my job or go part-time to help my kids with remote learning.” “My child’s teacher expects someone to sit next to my child for the entire day,” reported a third, who went on to note, “The stress it puts on my job (which unreasonably wants me in the office rather than working remotely which is a safer option) makes me feel like I should have sent my child to school. But then I would have felt guilty about possibly exposing my family even more.”
These work-caregiving tensions are draining women in more ways than one. “I just wonder every day if I will ever be back to where I was financially. To be the breadwinner as a working mom is emotionally and psychologically draining in a way people don’t always get. I used to think being a working mom was the best thing ever. Now I feel like a disappointment at everything,” said one mom from Central Indiana. This pressure may be compounded by employers’ expectations that men continue working as usual. “My husband can’t really take off because they expect the spouses to carry the burden of schooling,” an Indianapolis mom reported. A recent poll suggests that 63% of women are primarily responsible for e-learning, as compared to 29% of men.
Among those still working, a number of women also noted their concerns about the precariousness of their employment status. One woman from Marion County shared that both she and her husband feared losing their jobs. “This has injected into the situation a level of uncertainty that leads us to fear any financial decision-making,” she reported. “We were prepared for the bottom to fall out from under us at any minute-- and still are.” Another said, “With two kids in daycare/child care, the threat of quarantine is constantly looming over us.” Recent Census Bureau survey data suggests that nearly two in ten Hoosier women expect that their household will lose employment income in the month of October. While some have paid leave to attend to illnesses or caregiving needs that arise because of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, carve-outs to this program coupled with reduced demand in certain sectors leave many others teetering on the edge.
Some women in households that had lost jobs expressed concerns about timely and fair access to unemployment insurance. “My husband applied for unemployment months ago and still has never received a decision,” said one mother from Hamilton County who also told us they were nearing the end of their household savings. Another working mother from Madison County reported losing her job due to childcare disruptions and not receiving unemployment. Census Pulse data suggests that 345,366 women received unemployment benefits; 122,683 applied but have not received benefits, although caution should be used in relying on this data due to large standard error rates. However, providing support for these concerns, the Century Foundation estimates that Indiana is among the slowest states to process claims. For those that have received unemployment, concerns linger about how long boosted unemployment will last and the sufficiency of regular unemployment. "I have been expected to live on $200/week when I used to make $18/hour," a mother from Madison County told us. "It's impossible and I'm drowning."
A Financial Hole
Among those with lost income, women reported they felt as though they were digging a financial hole – either by depleting their savings or taking on debt. Prior to the pandemic, nearly one in three Hoosiers with a credit file had debt in collections with even higher proportions of delinquent debt in communities of color – meaning many entered the crisis on thin ice. Many of those with savings have dipped in; about one in ten households nationwide reported borrowing from or cashing out retirement savings by the end of July, and more recent data suggests that one in three households had dipped into savings or retirement accounts by mid-August. This is particularly concerning for women given that they tend to have lower retirement savings balances and need to save more. “We definitely took a financial hit, but luckily we had a good cushion before,” reported one respondent.
Those without savings have turned to borrowing. Approximately one million Hoosiers 18 or over have used credit cards or loans to pay for expenses in recent weeks. One Central Indiana woman reported that she was falling behind on bills and has “to use credit card more to buy needed items.” Another shared that she had “bills put on hold. Credit is hurting because of it. Times don't seem to be getting any better either.” Damaged credit scores may create a drag on recovery as they factor into Hoosiers’ ability to get jobs, apartments, insurance, and loans. It was a top complaint category from Hoosiers to the CFPB early on in the COVID-19 crisis.
Still others are simply falling behind on basics. "I am two months behind on rent as all my disposable income has been depleted since COVID began. I used to pay my rent on time up until August. I'm very worried about myself and the children and our home," a mother from Indianapolis reported. While she's applied for rental assistance, there isn't nearly enough to meet the needs and new restrictions mean many won't qualify for help. "My utilities are subject to disconnect and I'm behind on rent," another told us.
At the same time, women reported increased expenses, meaning that regardless of income changes, money is not going as far. About three in ten women over 18 are finding it difficult paying for usual household expenses (460,161 somewhat difficult and 301,795 very difficult), and women are more likely to report difficulty paying bills than men. “We had a relative stay with us for 3 months when her college shut down and with our kids being home daily our utilities have increased drastically. We won't be caught up until the end of the year,” one woman reported. Residential electric bills have increased in many localities statewide, supporting this observation. “We have had to spend more money on child care/education due to required distance learning,” another family reported. “Jobs never had layoffs, but grocery prices have increased,” another reported. A USDA “low-cost” food plan for a family of four has increased to $204.50/week in September 2020, up from $197.90/week in February of 2020. In August, 341,446 Hoosier households received assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with an average monthly benefit of $370.96/month/household.
Impact on Relationships & Mental Health
Hoosier women also described impacts beyond finances - “isolation has forced me into more contact with my abusive ex husband,” wrote one, while another shared that she lost her cousin to COVID-19. Still another said, “Although our finances did not change, the fear and social aspects of pandemic have changed our lives.” We acknowledge that even for those who have not experienced financial challenges, COVID-19 has led to other losses and challenges.
Recent data estimate that more Hoosier women than men report experiencing anxiety and an inability to stop worrying. An estimated 766k women experienced anxiety "more than half of days" or "nearly every day" compared to 458k Hoosier men. Similarly, 451,144 women were estimated to be feeling down or depressed “more than half of days” or “nearly every day” as compared to 342,085 Hoosier men. Clearly, attending to the challenges beyond financial well-being will also be crucial.
Will Women Struggle to Re-Enter the Workforce?
Women have also cautioned us that they anticipate barriers to re-entering the workforce. The instability and lack of affordability of child care is among them. In July, the National Association for the Education of Young Children predicted that fewer than two in ten childcare providers could be expected to last the year without financial support. That’s because the pandemic threw new challenges into an already-fragile system that lacks sufficient public investment and in which parents pay more than they can afford. Just over 2800 Hoosier children were on the waiting list for childcare assistance at the end of September.
Discrimination is another. “I am pregnant and finding a job that is comfortable hiring a pregnant woman is difficult due to the uncertainties of COVID-19,” reported one Hoosier. Still others worry about – or have already experienced – having to take a much lower-paying position to get back into the workforce. However, some have found that the job loss they experienced may have been a blessing in disguise, as they returned to the workforce in a higher-wage position.
Hoosier Women Want Policymakers to Act
Women expressed their desires for policy action in no uncertain terms. “Where is help?!” asked one mother from Indianapolis. “Put suffering people before politics,” said another. Women and their families are struggling, while their cries for help are lost in the political back-and-forth.
Some, recognizing the interconnectedness of supporting businesses and supporting employees, want to see “more help for companies who are struggling so they can keep their workers.” Others want to see greater protections for workers across places of employment, like “job protection for high risk people” and “paid leave for all parents, not just those who work for a certain size employer.”
A number of women also cried out for support managing caregiving, and with e-learning in particular. “Support stay at home parents caring and teaching the next generation!” one pleaded. “Figure out a way to take so much of the burden off women to just figure out how to manage educating children, still working, and everything else,” said another.
More stimulus, increased unemployment, and paid leave surfaced repeatedly as suggested approaches to shore up families’ financial well-being. We echo their calls. Supporting Hoosier women – both with the current effects of the pandemic recession and with the long-term financial and emotional damage it is likely to create – deserves our policymakers’ immediate attention.
*Thank you to the Women's Fund of Central Indiana for supporting this work.*