The Wage Gap Is Making Frontline Workers’ Lives Even Harder

Supermajority Education Fund

May 19, 2020

The majority of those working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic — at grocery stores, nursing homes, food processing plants, and as nurses — are women. As a new JobList analysis reveals, “Compared to 24% of men working in essential jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 34% of working women are holding frontline jobs.”

While elected officials and the media frequently refer to women in these positions as “essential workers,” they are also severely underpaid in comparison to the population at large and their male coworkers. According to the analysis, the average woman working in an essential industry currently earns an average of $41,174 annually, which is almost $12,700 less than a male frontline worker.

Experts say that this wage gap reveals long-standing problems in the American workplace. “In many ways, this epidemic has shone a light on the cracks in the system that have been there a long time,” Anastasia Christman, the Worker Power Program Director at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), told Supermajority News. “These have long been unprotected jobs with low compensation.”

Christman adds that part of the reason “essential” jobs are also the lowest paid is because of the way Americans have historically viewed paid work. “We group these very different jobs together and say they are part of the ‘service industry,'” Christman said. “And of course ‘serving’ has long been presumed to be the job of Black workers, immigrant workers, and women.”

In addition to addressing the wage gap currently in the service, healthcare, and food industries, Christman said that making healthcare, and paid sick and family leave, more accessible would financially help essential workers. “Either these workers don’t get any healthcare, or if you do get it, it takes a lot of your compensation,” she said, referring to the employee’s contributions to their annual insurance plans. “We need to figure out how to take healthcare out of the equation.”

The most significant thing employers and officials can do when designing policies to improve frontline workers’ lives is to center their voices, Christman said. She notes that she recently spoke to a manager at a dairy facility who realized that many workers were abruptly resigning when they were placed on the late-night shift. “But a lot of workers had to quit because there were no buses [that late] and they couldn’t get to work,” said Christman. “The only way that [the hiring manager] realized that was that she talked to them, and that changed the way they handle scheduling.”

The voices of employees, said Christman, will be integral to the future of the service industry during and after the epidemic. “We have got to start listening to frontline workers,” she said. “They should be the ones at these meetings.”