Why women continue to bear the brunt of COVID-19

Photo: Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation / Facebook

The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating and disproportionate impacts on women’s lives, jobs, future career prospects and long-term financial security.

Childcare remains critical in determining women’s ability to participate in the workforce and, along with that, their lifelong financial security. The federal government acknowledged this when, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it offered free childcare for about three months.

This government support was mainly aimed at ensuring the viability of childcare centres as parents withdrew their children because of the pandemic lockdown, their own unemployment and lack of affordability.

It was a temporary measure to bolster the economy, rather than a policy initiative to address the structural problems of unequal access and a lack of affordable, quality childcare: those problems remain.

United Workers Union delegate and early childhood educator Raelee Fechner told the Geelong Women Unionists Network forum in November: “Early childhood education has become a frontline, essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet workers, predominantly women, have their work dismissed as ‘a natural caring role’. Their work is undervalued, so workers receive low wages and the workforce is heavily casualised.”

The biggest and fastest-growing cohort in insecure housing, or who are homeless, is women aged over 55. Many retire with low levels of superannuation and retirement funds due to inequalities in pay, lack of access to and participation in permanent paid work, and breaks in their careers due to child-rearing or caring for other family members.

Many women withdrew some or all of their superannuation during COVID-19 to keep their families afloat when they had lost their jobs and had no other means of paying the bills.

Australian Services Union delegate Angela Carr, whose work involves providing housing for homeless people, told the forum that while motel-like accommodation was initially provided to these vulnerable people, it was a temporary measure. She is a strong advocate for state-owned and -managed public housing.

“Social housing, managed by not-for-profit organisations, is inadequate because it discriminates again homeless people and fails to maintain adequate housing standards,” she said.

Vulnerable

The October 6 federal budget failed to address, or even acknowledge, the particular COVID-19-related problems women face. Women are more vulnerable because of their over-representation in the lower-paid caring professions and education, and their economic insecurity. More women than men have been exposed to the virus because of their employment in healthcare, retail, childcare and education.

Healthcare workers are predominantly female, so the risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher. Women make up 80% of hospital workers, and 84% of the general medical practice workforce, including professionals, clerical and administration staff. Women make up 81.8% of residential aged-care workers, and 77% of the pathology and diagnostic imaging workforce.

Thus, most of the work and risk involved in responding to this crisis is shouldered by women.

The pandemic created a big tension between society’s need to both ensure the health workforce is at peak capacity and close schools: caring for children and caring for the community both depend on women, the expectations were often impossible to manage.

The pandemic generated a hostile environment for workers in retail and fast-food industries, where severity of abuse and violence increased. Evidence shows that women are at greatest risk, particularly during the period of panic buying, followed by low stock levels, purchase limits, customer limits and changes to service required for COVID-19 health measures.

Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows women make up 57.7% of retail workers. But they make up the majority of retail workers in fashion (84.2%), department stores (66.1%), and furnishings and homewares (71.3%), all sectors hardest hit by COVID-19.

Casual workers

More women than men have casual employment without sick leave entitlements. Women are also over-represented in industries that are heavily reliant on casual workers and likely to be hit hard by the restrictions, closure of businesses and economic downturn.

More than 200,000 women who work in the accommodation, food services and retail trade sectors missed out on JobKeeper because it did not apply to casual employees,

In April, more women than men lost their jobs and more women lost hours. A total of 350,000 women became unemployed, compared to 270,000 men: that is, 5.3% of employed women lost their jobs, compared with 3.9% of men.

Between March and the end of May, payroll jobs for women declined by 8%, compared with 6.3% for men.

Women are twice as likely as men to be on zero-hour contracts and 11.5% of women suffered a reduction in hours, compared to 7.5% of men.

The decline in women’s income and financial insecurity have ongoing impacts on their households because women are more likely to invest their earnings in it.

Spending more time at home, due to health measures and economic pressures, places women at greater risk of family violence. As the economic downturn continues, so too will those risks. The United Nations has raised the alarm over what it calls the “shadow pandemic”: the marked rise in violence against women during the pandemic lockdowns.

Unpaid work

Women’s unpaid work in the home and the community is a significant contributor to economic growth.

During the pandemic, mothers spend an extra hour each day on unpaid housework and four extra hours on childcare. To date, there has been no gender analysis of policy decisions and no discussion about addressing the impact on women.

International research shows that investment in the “care” sector creates twice as many jobs as construction. However, policy development is still premised on the assumption that the male has to be the primary breadwinner.

The federal government’s recovery response has had a disproportionately negative impact on women. As the economy reopens, we need a strong plan to support women in work and associated services that allow for that.

As the economy is underpinned by consumption, the fiscal stimulus packages should be directed towards the retail industry to recognise the valuable contribution of these low-paid workers.

The government should provide frontline workers with a low-income tax rebate or direct payment of up to $1500. The estimated stimulus to the economy from such a proposal is between $1.2 billion and $2.8 billion.

We need to make childcare accessible and affordable. Such a policy would significantly impact on women’s participation in the workforce. The government’s decision to discontinue free childcare, accompanied by the removal of JobKeeper for childcare workers, was a big set-back.

Superannuation

Research shows that 90% of women will retire with inadequate retirement savings and 20% yet to retire have no superannuation at all.

Women retire with 47% less superannuation than men yet, on average, they live five years longer. Women also only receive one-third of government tax concessions on super, even though 47% of the workforce are women.

More than 40% of older, single, retired women live in poverty and experience economic insecurity in retirement. About 44% of women rely on their partners’ income as the main source of funds for retirement, and 8.5% of women aged between 65 and 74 still have a mortgage.

Key factors behind the gender super gap include: the average female salary (including part-time workers) is $44,000; female graduates earn $5000 less than male graduates in the same role; women working full time earn 18% less than men; 43% of women workers are part-time; women spend on average five hours more per day caring for children than men; women take on average five years out of the workforce to care for children or family members, which can cause their super savings to stagnate; and the current 9.5% super guarantee does not enable most women to accrue sufficient savings for a comfortable retirement.

About 220,000 women miss out on $125 million of superannuation contributions as they do not meet the requirement to earn $450 a month (before tax) from one employer — as many women work more than one part-time job.

One of the government’s first policy responses during the lockdown was to allow access to superannuation prior to the retirement age. Analysis from AMP, a major superannuation fund, found that 21% of women withdrew their starting super balances, compared with 17% of men.

Women also withdrew a larger proportion of their super than men and were more likely to clear out their entire super savings (14%) compared with their male counterparts (12%).

With the average superannuation balance for a woman in her early 40s at just under $62,000,  withdrawing the maximum amount allowed likely wiped out the compound interest on her superannuation.

Women’s ability to make up for their decreased superannuation through future earnings has also been reduced, with 55% of the jobs lost being held by women. Female work hours were reduced by 11.5% in April, compared to a 7.5% reduction for male workers.

So far, 581,000 women have accessed the superannuation early release scheme. Superannuation is not a bank account and it is not social security, yet this policy has made it both.

Women have had to fund their own COVID-19 recovery, which will have a significant impact on their ability to retire with security.

Union measures

Unions have called for several measures to address the unequal effects of the pandemic including:

• free, universal early childhood education/care and fully funded kindergarten for all three- and four-year-old children;

• JobKeeper to remain and be expanded to cover all workers; two weeks' paid pandemic leave for every worker who must be tested and/or go into quarantine/isolation, or to care for someone in quarantine/isolation;

• flexible working arrangements so that parents can adjust and/or reduce their hours and/or workload to care for children and oversee remote schooling without any loss of pay or conditions;

• four weeks' paid carer’s leave for every worker who is unable to work due to pandemic-related caring responsibilities; reimbursement for low-paid workers who have withdrawn superannuation to pay household expenses;

• safe alternative workspace and appropriate adjustments to work hours/arrangements for any worker who discloses they are experiencing family violence, including while working from home; and

• a liveable income for any woman not working during the pandemic.

Unions have also called for pandemic recovery planning/expenditure to include: significant investment in social infrastructure, including health and community services; significant investment in female-dominated sectors such as tourism, hospitality, retail and the arts; targeted support for women to train for roles across all sectors receiving public funds; and for safe, secure employment.

[Zeta Henderson is an Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation job representative and is vice-president of Geelong Trades Hall. This article is based on her presentation to an online forum discussing the impact of COVID-19 on women organised by the Geelong Women Unionists Network.]

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