Florida Black women who are essential workers are economically insecure

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a floodlight on the systemic inequalities embedded in our state and nation.

The latest report of the Florida American Association of University Women, “Working Black Women in Florida and Economic Insecurity: A Story of Gender and Racial Inequality,” shows that many of these working women are on the front lines of our COVID-19 essential workforce, yet despite employment are economically insecure.

Economic insecurity

The AAUW report found that in Florida, 61% of all Black working women and half of Black full-time working women don’t earn enough to reach economic security. These percentages are greater than those of White women and Hispanic women.

Gender and racial occupational segregation is one key explanation. Black women are often segregated into low-wage jobs with few or no benefits. These occupations not only have high rates of economic insecurity but are precisely the occupations on the front line of the state’s COVID-19 workforce.

In Florida, the top three occupational groupings in which Black women are concentrated are nursing aides (including psychiatric aides and home health aides), customer service representatives, and cashiers.

In Florida, 75% of those health aides are economically insecure, as are 74% of customer service representatives, and almost all (95%) of cashiers.

Minimum wage

These are among the essential workers who Floridians have been depending on. Health aides risk their lives in hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes to care for the most vulnerable. Customer service representatives field calls as people navigate deliveries and other services.

And cashiers staff our grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations to ensure everyone has supplies. The reality is that Black women have been on the COVID-19 frontlines. What a cruel irony that the workers who we depend on the most, often are economically insecure.

In time we will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. When we do, perhaps one of the best ways to honor the dedication of these workers is with policies that ensure they can support themselves and their families. Central to this is raising the minimum wage.

The minimum wage stands at $8.56 an hour, and the subminimum tipped wage is $5.44 an hour. These wages do not yield economic security. We must move to living wages to support these essential workers.

Follow the lead

Florida must also follow the lead of several states and ensure paid leave for workers who provide critical family care. The Florida Family Leave Act would provide paid leave to bond with a minor child upon birth, adoption, or foster care placement, along with protection for parents against loss of job and health benefits.

Florida workers need access to paid sick days for when they get sick. It is clear from this pandemic that paid family leave and paid sick days are not just an economic policy. They are public health policy.

Finally, the state needs a commitment to address gender and race inequities including the gender/race pay gap, discrimination and occupational segregation. Labor market inequities must be addressed to ensure that all Floridians can achieve economic security.

Mary Gatta is an associate professor of Sociology at the City University of New York and author of the new report, “Working Black Women in Florida and Economic Insecurity: A Story of Gender and Racial Inequality.’’

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