Pandemic hits women, people of color hardest

By: - December 21, 2020 6:05 am

Kimberly Jones outside her Minneapolis home on Dec 17. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Kimberly Jones knew something was up as she was walking to a company-wide meeting and saw some veteran employees packing up their belongings.

She’d started hearing rumblings about her regional airline company’s shaky future in February, when the word “coronavirus” was just becoming part of the American lexicon.

On March 12, a work trip to Los Angeles was cancelled, and by March 16 her company, Compass Airlines, announced that Delta Airlines wasn’t renewing its contract and couldn’t survive the blow. In April, as air travel collapsed, the company closed its doors. 

She’d started out in the industry as a “ramper” who throws bags on the plane, then a trainer of rampers, and then a flight attendant for SkyWest Airlines. She loved being a flight attendant, but it’s taxing work, and after injuring her arm, Jones became a recruiter with Compass in October 2019.

“I really loved being a recruiter,” she said.

She flew to L.A. once or twice a month for training interviews, until the pandemic arrived.

Jones has been unemployed since March 16.

A recent University of Minnesota report that found women — particularly women of color like Jones — are at higher risk of being laid off during the pandemic, both because women dominate the industries hit hardest like hospitality, and because they could be facing discrimination during layoff decisions. Meanwhile, those who have managed to keep their jobs are more likely to be exposed to the virus at work. That’s because they work in high-risk health, food and social service industries.  

In addition, women — especially women of color — are less likely to have the resources to weather the storm.  

According to the Brookings Institution, for instance, the median wealth of single white men under the age of 35 ($22,640) is 3.5 times greater than that of single white women ($6,470); 14.6 times greater than that of single Black men ($1,550); and 224.2 times greater than that of single Black women ($101). 

By the age of 55 and older, single white men hold 1.3 times more wealth than single white women and 8.1 times more wealth than single Black men. 

The workers most affected by the pandemic are also statistically most likely to receive low wages and few benefits, the U study found.

Jones has been able to get by on unemployment benefits and odd jobs — she recently painted her neighbor’s kitchen, for example — although things got tighter after the extra $600 per week unemployment aid ended in July. 

“Thankfully I’ve always been a very thrifty person,” Jones said.

She doesn’t have a lot of big bills, other than her mortgage, car and utilities, and has used the NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center food shelf.

Her unemployment was set to expire at month’s end, before state lawmakers extended unemployment benefits for 13 weeks. She said when that runs out, she plans to drive for DoorDash while finishing school.

Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director of African Career, Education, and Resource, said people most affected by the pandemic are Black women, who are already underpaid compared to white people.

Three of the industries most battered by the pandemic — retail trade, transportation and warehousing, and leisure and hospitality — are among the top 10 employers of Black workers, according to the Brookings Institution. 

Munene said the pandemic has blown the cover off the disparities that have long existed in society, even in the way aid is dispersed, with a lot of “unnecessary documentation” required of people, some of whom don’t have computers or internet access.

“The digital divide has been so greatly demonstrated in our community,” she said.

The state knows where COVID-19 hotspots are — such as Brooklyn Park — so to require them to produce evidence they’ve been affected by the pandemic is inhumane, Munene said.

Community organizations like hers have stepped in to help, going out into the community armed with laptops to help people sign up for help.

Munene would have liked to see what’s called “wraparound” services for the most vulnerable people, including health and mental health care, housing and food assistance. 

To help people better weather future crises, the U report recommends universal health insurance and basic income, expanded unemployment, paid sick leave and family leave and improved emergency preparedness in child care and education.

Jones hopes to be part of that wraparound next time: While unemployed, she has pursued her doctorate in education. When she lost her job at a middle school five years ago, she worked nights at a shelter for girls, and learned most were on their own once they turned 18.

At the time, she nearly lost her home in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of north Minneapolis, so she decided to give back by converting it into a transitional shelter for women exiting human trafficking.

“Even in a pandemic there’s something God allows (people) to take away from it,” Jones said.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.