COVID-19 Puts Inequality Under a Microscope

Author: Margarite Sullivan

Guest Editor: Allen Aho

June 8, 2020 3:32pm

COVID-19 has been labeled the “novel Coronavirus” because it had not been previously identified.  Unlike COVID-19, inequality in the United States is far from novel.

The pandemic has forced us to “see” the essential workers whose work we took for granted but on which we heavily rely.  Domestic/household workers were among the first-responders to COVID-19 as they were tasked with sterilization of offices and customer-facing businesses so we could keep the most essential areas of the United States economy online.  There are approximately 2.2-2.5 million domestic workers in the United States and 82 percent do not have sick leave.[1]  91.5 percent of domestic workers are women.[2]  Many states do not offer workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance for domestic workers, leaving them economically vulnerable.[3]  “The gaps became clear during California’s fire season last year, when many housekeepers showed up to clean houses in mandatory evacuation areas.  They had been asked to stay and take care of clients’ pets, or were left behind as an oversight – their clients just hadn’t told them to stay home.”[4]

Most essential workers are women, people of color, and more likely to be immigrants.[5]  Essential workers are more likely to live below or just above the poverty line.[6]  77 percent of essential healthcare workers are women.[7]  Less than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Latinx workers are able to work from home.[8]  Women and people of color are at the frontlines of the pandemic but we have failed to create social programs and policies to support them.

The work performed by women, and more specifically women of color, has been historically undervalued and has left women and families without the resources to provide for basic needs such as healthcare.  If you are reading this article, you likely have the ability to self-quarantine, not expose yourself to a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus, feed and house your family, and access healthcare if you get sick.

Inequality is magnified through the disproportionate rates of exposure, death, and impact on women from COVID-19.  We often talk about gender and race inequality in the abstract and pat ourselves on the back when we recognize or call out inequality.  I challenge you to delve deeper into the structures and policies causing women to be disproportionately harmed by COVID-19.  Start conversations in your neighborhood, community, city, state, and country with the focus on developing infrastructure necessary to support women and people of color.


[1] https://www.citylab.com/equity/2020/03/coronavirus-cleaning-service-janitor-domestic-worker-office/608125/; see also https://www.epi.org/blog/domestic-workers-are-at-risk-during-the-coronavirus-crisis-data-show-most-domestic-workers-are-black-hispanic-or-asian-women/

[2] https://www.epi.org/blog/domestic-workers-are-at-risk-during-the-coronavirus-crisis-data-show-most-domestic-workers-are-black-hispanic-or-asian-women/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/fontline-work-women-minorities-pandemic/; see also https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm

[6] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/people-color-women-shoulder-front-line-work-during-pandemic-n1199291

[7] https://www.axios.com/women-majority-essential-workers-coronavirus-5a89e6b2-9524-4fe4-b91b-7cd64d769aef.html

[8] https://www.epi.org/blog/black-and-hispanic-workers-are-much-less-likely-to-be-able-to-work-from-home/

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