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In a Pandemic Era, Why Equal Pay Day Is More Concerning Than Ever

Today marks Equal Pay Day — symbolizing how far into 2021 women must work to make what men earned in 2020. But, unlike years past, female workers are facing even more financial burdens due to the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare the harsh realities of the gender pay gap, particularly in the retail industry.

While Equal Pay Day is earlier than it’s been since its inception in 1996, the United States still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women working full-time, year-round jobs are typically paid just 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. The global outbreak and resulting recession have fanned the flames of gender inequity: A year after the coronavirus took hold in the United States, the organization reported that a gender wage gap exists in 94% of occupations. This includes frontline jobs such as those in healthcare, food services and retail — with women making up nearly two in three frontline workers.

“There are many different factors that have led to where we are right now: Because of COVID-19, stores closed and people were furloughed — many of them were women. At the same time, education was [relegated] to the household, and as primary caretakers, [many] women had to exit the workforce or take a step back,” explained Sarah Engel, CMO of consultancy January Digital, whose executive team is majority female. “I think we’ll see the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women for years to come.”

What’s more, with millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, many of these frontline occupations are at heightened risk of job loss, which could further threaten women’s abilities to simply make ends meet at a time of crisis. In the last month of 2020, a staggering statistic from the Labor Department made headlines: Employers had slashed 140,000 jobs in December — and all of those roles belonged to women. (In total, women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000.) Of the 9.8 million jobs lost from February through the end of 2020, women accounted for 55% of them.

The wage gap is even greater for many women of color: NWLC data showed that, over the course of four decades, a woman who starts her career today stands to lose a shocking $406,280 because of the wage gap. For Black and Native American women, the typical lifetime losses would exceed nearly $1 million, and for Latinas, it is more than $1.1 million.

But, amid the health crisis, some women have actually seen their careers thrive: A recent survey from Shoptalk showed that nearly three quarters of respondents said the pandemic has either not affected or positively affected their professional work. It found that women who indicated a negative toll pointed to quantitative impacts like having their compensation cut, seeing their workload significantly increased or losing their jobs, while those who reported a positive impact most often provided “more attitudinal responses such as being challenged in new ways.”

Overall, more than two million women exited the workforce last year, and progress in closing the gender wage gap has stalled. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in the years between 1980 and 2000, the gender earnings ratio for weekly full-time workers rose by 12.8 percentage points while the wage gap shrank from 35.8% to 23.1%. However, between 2000 and 2020, the earnings ratio advanced by just 5.4 percentage points — less than half as much — to the current weekly 2020 gender earnings ratio of 82.3%, and the wage gap sits at 17.7%.

As the pandemic persists, women — and particularly women of color — will continue to face financial struggles, which could also harm the families or dependents who rely on their income. In its latest policy brief, the IWPR wrote, “As the economy is recovering, measures are needed to help the incomes of women and their families grow — by enforcing and strengthening equal pay statutes, improving the quality of jobs held mainly by women, including raising the minimum wage, access to paid family and medical leave, and affordable and quality child care and care for all who need it.”

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