Women of color at higher risk for layoffs, COVID-19 exposure at work, report says

    Tyson Foods, which has seen outbreaks at several plants, has installed workstation dividers at its facilities. Photo courtesy of Tyson Foods.

    Women workers in Minnesota, especially women of color, are not only at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 at work but have also been more likely to be laid off during the pandemic, according to a new report from the University of Minnesota.

    The Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy report used state unemployment data, occupational data and interviews with community organizations to identify which Minnesota workers have felt the worst effects from the pandemic so far — and what policymakers can do to support them.

    Jobs in the higher-risk health, food service and social service industries are disproportionately filled by women, while men are more likely to work in low-risk essential jobs — like construction — that don’t require as much interaction with the public and allow for more social distancing.

    Women of color are especially likely to work in high-risk industries. Nearly 40% of Asian and Native American women workers and 25% of Black women workers have high-risk essential jobs. KaYing Yang, program director with the Coalition of Asian-American Leaders, told the researchers that these women face a “vicious cycle.”

    “There aren’t a lot of choices (for low-wage, essential workers). These are already jobs that don’t pay that much, so they can’t risk losing their job, so then they are risking their health to keep their job. And if they lose their job, they don’t know how to file for unemployment,” she said in the report.

    The gender and racial disparities in layoffs aren’t fully explained by industry or occupational differences. Discrimination may have played a role, according to the study.

    On top of the “dual vulnerability” of higher COVID-19 exposure risk and higher likelihood of layoffs, women of all races and particularly women of color are less likely to have resources to help them through financial or health issues, like long-term savings and health insurance, according to the report.

    To help workers most affected by layoffs and COVID-19, the researchers recommend keeping a stockpile of personal protective equipment for essential workers; providing additional funding for social service organizations, including undocumented workers in COVID-19 relief packages; and publishing public health information in multiple languages.

    In the long-term, the report suggests policies like universal health insurance; universal basic income; expanded unemployment insurance; paid sick leave and family leave; and, improved emergency preparedness in child care and education to help vulnerable communities recover from COVID-19 and weather future crises.

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.