The pandemic economy hit women workers hardest, but they’re fighting back
Town hall panelists, left to right: Carmella Carothers – Shop Steward & Membership Assistance Program, UNITE HERE Local 1; Haley Carrera – Community Organizer, Phoenix, Ariz.; Carol Rosenblatt – Retired Executive Director, Coalition of Labor Union Women; Erica Smiley – Executive Director, Jobs With Justice

Five and a half million women lost their jobs in 2020; Black, Latina, and Asian women were hit the hardest. With schools and child care centers closed, women were burdened with increased demands for their unpaid labor.

“Confronting the Covid Economy: Women Fight Back,” a virtual Town Hall gathering May 2, addressed head-on the economic devastation that women workers experienced during the pandemic.

Brought together by People’s World, the International Labor Communications Association, and the People Before Profits Education Fund, leaders of national organizations joined activists from labor struggles in our communities to address the burdens that women have borne during the pandemic and to highlight how women are fighting back, mobilizing, and demanding equity and justice.

In contrast to the Great Recession of 2008, the pandemic-driven economic downturn has been called a “pink collar recession” or a “she-cession.” Nearly a million more women than men lost their jobs. Women are more highly concentrated in low-paid, service economy jobs that put workers out of a job or on the frontlines of exposure to the virus. They were less likely to have jobs where working from home was possible.

From banquet server to social worker overnight

One woman in the thick of the fightback is Carmella Carothers, shop steward in Chicago’s Unite Here Local 1, which organizes hotel and hospitality workers. The vast majority of members of her union lost jobs in the early days of the lockdowns. The most immediate needs of the newly unemployed were dire and immediate. The union quickly formed a Membership Assistance Program. In Carmella’s words, she went from banquet server to social worker overnight. The Member Assistance Team helps unemployed members navigate the state unemployment system, access food banks, enroll for utilities assistance, forbearances on mortgages, and letters to landlords, among other services.

Shop stewards rose to the challenge, assisting not only their own union members but also workers in non-union hotels, who were outright fired and therefore lost their healthcare as well as their jobs. In contrast, members of Local 1 had held a strike in 2018 in which they fought for, and won, job security and health care benefits. That victory really paid off during this pandemic. As Carothers put it, “That’s a lesson for all to stick with the union and the union will stick with you.”

Carol Rosenblatt was executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women for almost 20 years before her recent retirement. At the Town Hall, Rosenblatt focused especially on health care workers, who were hit hard by the pandemic. Workplaces were unprepared, and workers went without proper protective gear in the most dangerous of environments. Because non-emergency hospital procedures were halted, many health care workers lost their jobs. Over 3,600 health care workers died of COVID-19, many suffered extreme levels of stress, and some were deliberately targeted and harassed by pandemic deniers.

Some essential workers were protected because their unions could demand health and safety measures. Others took to social media, publicizing the industry’s lack of preparedness and the inadequacy of the federal government’s response. The fightback continues.

Mobilized into action

Haley Carrera was a young community activist from Phoenix working two jobs when the pandemic shut restaurants and bars. She was fired from both jobs. That experience mobilized her into action, first phone-banking for an effort to raise the minimum wage, and then on the frontlines of aid for the unsheltered. Arizona’s Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, with a thumbs-down and a coy little curtsy, voted against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Carrera linked low wages directly to the housing crisis; 40% of unsheltered adults have jobs, but they just don’t pay enough to cover the basic need for housing.

A fourth speaker was Erica Smiley, who is the executive director of Jobs With Justice, a national workers rights organization. Smiley focused on the nation’s care infrastructure, emphasizing measures that can be taken by government to counter the pandemic economy’s effects on working women. Caring across Generations, a program launched by Jobs With Justice, addresses families’ needs for reliable child- and elder-care, and for caregiving jobs to be professional, organized, and pay a living wage.

“How can we as a society move from caregiving as unpaid, unseen labor, to dignified and well-paid jobs that are safeguarded by labor protections?” Smiley asked. She cited Danielle Phillips-Cunningham’s book, Putting their Hands on Race: Irish Immigrant and Black Domestic Workers, a labor history study that recognizes caregivers’ work and acts of resistance.

One common thread that all speakers were drawn to is the struggle for democratic rights and for victories over anti-union forces in electoral struggles. Carothers said that in 2020 she did more than 20 shifts of phone banking. Her fellow union members sacrificed their time to get people to the polls in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. Carrera helped organize actions around Sinema’s office; one demand among others was that she support the Raise the Wage Act for all workers.

When moderator and People’s World Senior Editor Roberta Wood asked where they will focus their attention in the next year, all agreed that defending voting rights is of paramount importance. What Wood called the “women’s agenda for the coming year” also included addressing the housing crisis, passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), and reforming unemployment systems.

Smiley pointed out that there’s a whole raft of legislation that would help women fight back, including the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act and a pathway to citizenship for essential workers. There are also concessions that would be easy for employers, like solving scheduling inconsistencies that make child care arrangements even more difficult. Though easy to implement, unions still have to fight for them.

Smiley summed up the demands of the women’s agenda:

“I want to support anything that will ultimately change the rules to make it easier for us to fight in the coming years. If that’s infrastructure so that we can work and participate in civic engagement, I’m in. If that’s things that make it easier for us to vote, I’m in. If it’s anything that makes it easier to organize and collectively bargain, count me in. That’s where we need to be.”

Connect with Jobs with Justice, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and Unite Here Local 1.


Anita Waters
Anita Waters

Anita Waters is Professor Emerita of sociology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and an organizer for the CPUSA in Ohio.