Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, more than 5 million women have lost their jobs in the U.S. White women have recently made up some of those employment losses, but Black, Latina and Asian women are still disproportionately losing work.
A significant number of women of color been out of work for half a year, the tipping point at which it becomes much harder to find a job. In December, 44% of unemployed Asian women reported being unemployed for at least six months, while 40% of unemployed Black women and 38% of unemployed Latinas reported the same, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.
When these women exit the workforce, the ripples of that decision impact their families and communities. Black and Latina women are more likely than white and Asian women to be single heads of households and the sole source of support for their families. And because of long-standing inequalities in pay and wealth by race, ethnicity and gender, women of color are the group least likely to have the resources to cover lost earnings.
Often even the choice to exit the workforce isn’t really a choice. Women are three times more likely than men to say that lack of childcare is the reason they are no longer working during the pandemic, according to Census Bureau and Federal Reserve research. Many also fear being exposed to COVID-19 at work if they are the sole caregiver for children and elders.
HuffPost talked to three women of color who shared the breaking points that pushed them out of their jobs and the repercussions they’ve experienced since. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
“I had to have a spreadsheet showing that I was working remotely, showing what I would do every hour.”
Delly is a Nigerian immigrant who worked at a health technology firm in Maryland under an H-1B visa until she was laid off in November. She is not being identified with her full name, due to her fear of career reprisal.
I started at the company in March 2020, and that was great, I thought, it’s going to be the path to getting my green card. But it happened to be around the same time COVID hit. I remember being told on a Zoom call the following week that everybody was going to get furloughed except for me. And then I was told that I’d have to come into the office, and I was the only staff that had to work and carry on for everyone else. It is a small company, but I had to learn on the go how to file claims for clients who were calling in. And I had to do my job in public relations on top of that.
I would work in the office twice a week, and my boss said it was OK. Then he started being demanding and embarrassing me. He would invite people to the office and put me on the spot, and say, “She needs to come in here more. She only comes two days a week. She has to be here five days a week.” But everything that was required of me, I could do online.
I was told that I didn’t work because I was working remotely. I had to have a spreadsheet showing that I was working remotely, showing what I would do every hour. That was what drove me crazy, because I’m validating I’m working, and meanwhile I have to keep on doing everybody’s job and mine, and I have to prove that I did it. I felt like I was imprisoned. I was hired for a public relations role, but it started feeling more secretarial. It was really the visa that kept me going. Forget about the money.
The worst part was hiding how emotionally drained I was from my 8-year-old daughter. She was learning while I was working from home. I had to always be upbeat, because I didn’t want her to see me cry. I didn’t want her to know that something was going wrong at work. I felt like I was really, really neglecting her, because I would take time to go cry when I could be with her.
My daughter had to be homeschooled, and I had told them at work that I didn’t have anyone to help. Even family were afraid to have anyone’s kid over, not knowing who you’ve been exposed to, especially with me going to work. I leaned on a friend who was able to help me for two days a week. In November, I started getting grilled every single day: “You have to come in.” So my cousin brought his mom from Nigeria to come stay with me so she could help us out.
The week she came, I went to work for the whole week, and that was the week I got COVID from my boss. He didn’t tell me he had it. He told me, “I have a head cold. I don’t feel so good.” I was feeling ill the following week. I panicked for my daughter and for my aunt, who is in her 60s. Luckily, my aunt and daughter tested negative, and I just had to keep my distance.
And then I got an email from work saying they’re shutting down the office for three months because our boss is sick. And then a following email on a Saturday morning, saying, “I can no longer continue with your work permit,” and they were letting me go because it’s been difficult for them not having me in the office. I was like, “What?” But at the same time, the week before I got COVID, I was on the verge of quitting. I felt relief.
That was 2020 for me. It was a very difficult season. I put it out there on NextDoor: “Hey, I’m a single mom. I’m looking for a job, I’m trying to figure out things.” And I have never seen such an outpouring of kindness, from people showing up and dropping off groceries, to people I’ve never met reaching out and trying to help, people saying, “Send me your resume.” One of the ladies who showed up with groceries, I still don’t know what she looks like. She had her mask on, but before she left, she hugged me. “I know you’re a mom, I know what it’s like.” She was telling me she shared my experience of being unemployed.
The real issue now is staying afloat. It’s not the worry of having to deal with the toxic environment. Because I have this visa, companies that are not as familiar don’t want to get tangled with it. I would get near to getting a job and I would miss the opportunity because of the paperwork. About a week ago, I got a job offer as a short-term bank consultant under a diplomatic G4 visa. In order to change to that visa, I have to leave the country and come back. I’m just in this space now, where I’m like, “Oh my God, I need to figure out getting my visa changed so I can work legitimately.”
“Since being let go, I’ve put in upwards of 400 job applications.”
Chelsea Redding worked as a graphic designer for a signage company in Phoenix, Arizona, until May 2020 when she was laid off. She has been unable to find full-time employment, and ideally wants to switch to a career in operations.
Even before the pandemic, there was not enough work. So when COVID hit and we all got send home, I was easily only working and getting paid for about four hours a day. As a single woman, living alone and having to pay rent and bills and buy food, it just was not enough.
It got worse and worse until I finally was like, I’m going to apply for unemployment for limited hours. The day before I got fired, I emailed my boss and he said there was no work for me to do, so I just logged out for the day. The next morning, I couldn’t log in. Upon calling and saying, “Hey I can’t log in, what’s going on?” they were like, “Oh, well, we got notice you applied for unemployment so we figured you just quit.”
I tried to explain that I did it for reduced hours, and they were like, “Well, we don’t have any work for you to do anyway, so maybe it is for the best.” It felt like rather than trying to get any explanation from me, they just let me go because I had the audacity to get money some other way. They let me go mid-May.
I feared not being able to pay for things, and then it turned into some type of weird elation because I hated the job anyway. On the other hand, even though I hated it, I was putting my all into it only to still get fired.
Since then, I have not been able to find work. My boyfriend moved in to help me where he could, and I’ve been trying to pick up little things here and there as I can.
I was considering a career switch well before I was let go, so I’ve been using this as the time to really make the switch. Being at a convention, but behind the scenes running around making sure things are working smoothly, is my favorite thing.
I started my job hunt very strongly, searching every single day. I was putting in 15, 20 applications a day, just applying for literally everything listed for my area. There was of course a point at which I stressed myself out so bad, it was just like, “OK, just stop applying for a week or two.” And now I’m back. I flip-flop between thinking, “OK, I’ll take anything,” and “No, this is what I want to be doing.” Since being let go, I’ve put in upwards of about 400 job applications.
When I look at the landscape of how Phoenix is built, all of the good office jobs, or even front desk, or somebody’s assistant, or operations, are all in Scottsdale, which tends to lean toward the wealthy, white population. And there’s definitely this fear of “OK, am I not getting these extremely simple jobs that I’m incredibly overqualified for because I’m overqualified, or because I’m a Black woman?” I’m trying to figure out how much of that awkwardness is restricting me from even getting my foot in the door.
If I go to a company’s site and I click on “team,” and the entire team is white, I’m like, “OK, then I’m going to not disclose my race on the job application.” But if I find that they’re openly saying, “We’re an equal opportunity employer,” and all that, then maybe. I’m doing more research than applying. It’s a bit exhausting.
“I can find another job one day. I can’t risk my family’s health.”
Yuri Jang was an art therapist at an in-patient psychiatric unit at a New Jersey hospital who returned from her maternity leave in March 2020.
I felt secure returning to work because my daughter, finally seemed safe and healthy after being born two months premature. I loved helping people, the art therapy work I was doing, and my clinical team. However, I had a new worry on the horizon. I had seen news reports of people suddenly collapsing and succumbing to a mysterious illness in China. The illness at first seemed remote, but had quickly spread in China and Italy, and now it was in New York.
I asked what precautions the hospital would take to handle the growing threat of coronavirus. In response, they provided a training video about COVID-19 and promoted stronger infection control measures. However, we would have to bring in our own personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. This was troubling. PPE was expensive and extremely hard to come by in those early days. I talked to a colleague at another hospital, and learned that other programs were changing their therapy groups — the mainstay of art therapy work in health care settings — to individual sessions to help prevent spreading the virus. Unfortunately, this would not be the case in my unit.
I asked for more time off because of my concern about exposure risk to myself
and my family. I hoped to wait out COVID-19 until it was more under control. My director had been very patient and understanding of the need to prolong my maternity leave, and she granted me more and more time away.
A couple of months later, a friend told me that coronavirus had come to our unit, and that she had gotten sick and she was worried about her family. Patients and employees were getting infected and a staff member who worked night shifts had died. Employees were taking leave and/or resigning.
As much as I wanted to help, I could not shake the images of damaged lungs from COVID-19 imprinted in my memory from the news. They described it as looking like crackled or shattered glass. I thought of my baby; we had come such a long way.
If it weren’t for my recent experiences of a traumatic early birth and nursing a
fragile tiny baby to full health over half a year, I may have had a different
response to the threat of COVID-19 at my workplace. My director gently asked me if I could return a couple of times. I asked if it would be possible to find another art therapist to share my hours because we had canceled plans for a nanny due to exposure risk, and I was my baby’s primary caregiver.
The answer to hiring another art therapist to split my hours with was “no,” and I felt like I had held onto the position while not fulfilling my duties long enough. The breaking point that led me to resign was the thought that I might be preventing my clinical team from getting the help they need and the realization that the threat of COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere soon.
I still feel guilty for leaving my work team short-handed, but then I see my baby girl looking happy, strong, and thriving. I think of our fretful journey to good health, as well as my husband and my aging parents, who also have medical conditions, and I know I did the right thing. I can find another job one day. I can’t risk my family’s health and well-being if I have the luxury and choice to stay home for my baby.