Even Before the Pandemic, Women in Front-Line Jobs Were in Crisis

Close-up on a server working in a restuarant and holding a notepad

Toned outdoor cafe scene with waitress taking order
At NWLC, the millions of women on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are constantly on our minds. There are women who have struggled to get by as restaurant servers and bartenders, fast food workers, hotel clerks, housekeeping cleaners, retail salespersons, nail salon workers, staff at theaters and other entertainment venues, and in other service sector positions who now face a high risk of losing their jobs altogether. Many others—including the personal care and home health aides caring for people managing illness in their homes, the cashiers staffing grocery stores, and the child care workers caring for the children of health care workers and first responders—find that their work is more essential than ever, but don’t find that their paychecks are any bigger as a result.
Women are the majority in all these jobs—which are among the 40 lowest paying jobs in the United States. Our new report, When Hard Work Is Not Enough: Women in Low-Paid Jobs, examines the lives of these women and how they were faring in 2018, the most recent year for which national data on poverty and income are available. We find that in a year in which by some measures our economy was booming, millions of women in low-paid jobs faced severe economic hardship. Today, the rapid spread of coronavirus has dramatically shifted our economic landscape—and these women and their families are likely to be hit first and hardest by the recession that is sure to follow.
Here are four not-at-all-fun facts about women in low-paid jobs:

  1. Women make up 64 percent of workers in the 40 lowest paying jobs—and women are more likely to hold low-paid jobs than men, and face a higher risk of economic insecurity than men, in every state in the U.S. Our new map and data tables can show you how women in low-paid jobs are faring in your state.
  2. There is disproportionate representation of women of color in low-paid jobs. Black women’s share of the low-paid workforce, for example, is 5 times larger than their share of the overall workforce, while Latinas make up a share of the low-paid workforce that is more than twice as large as their share of the workforce overall.
  3. Women of color in low-paid jobs face a high risk of falling below or near the poverty line. Among all women of color working full time in low-paid jobs, 43 percent lived in or near poverty in 2018, compared to 35 percent of white, non-Hispanic women. 44 percent of Latinas, 46 percent of Native American women, and 49 percent of Black women working full time in low-paid jobs had household incomes below twice the poverty line.
  4. More than two-thirds of mothers in the low-paid workforce (69 percent) are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families. 84 percent of Black mothers in the low-paid workforce are sole or primary breadwinners. Feeding and caring for a family can be nearly impossible on low wages. Even when working full time, 58 percent of women of color who are mothers working in low-paid jobs had incomes below twice the poverty line in 2018, including 21 percent who lived in poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the gaps in our economic and social infrastructure that have resulted from decades of undervaluing the work that women and people of color do and underinvesting in the supports that families with low and moderate incomes need. To mitigate the vast impact of this public health crisis and stabilize our economy, policy makers must deliver relief for women and their families now and make comprehensive public investments that remedy underlying flaws in our programs and systems. When we center the Black and brown women most likely to be in low-paid jobs in driving a policy agenda to correct these inequities, all of us will benefit—not just the wealthy few.