Recession hitting women harder and longer, report shows

Working women

August 26, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Judi Bartosz is unemployed, a victim of the recession. She has been laid off three times in the past four years because of business downsizings and closings. She has been job hunting since April.

"It's scary," said Bartosz, 40, who worked in advertising the past 10 years and taught school for seven years before that.

Bartosz, a highly skilled professional, made $35,000 a year in her last job and was able to accumulate some savings. She receives $200 a week in unemployment compensation, which will run out in October. The money allows her to pay living costs and health insurance premiums while she job-hunts. "I'm fortunate I have some money saved," said Bartosz, who has no dependents.

It takes men five to seven months to find a new job, but for women like Bartosz it takes an average of two months longer, according to the outplacement firm of Lee Hecht Harrison in New York. But most women who recently lost jobs are not professionals like Bartosz: They worked in the low-paying secondary labor market as salespeople, cashiers, waitresses, janitors and clerical workers. Many were in part-time jobs with no safety net.

For these women, the economic slowdown is not a recession. It's a depression.

That is the conclusion of a new study, "The Recession's Invisible Victims: Women Sales and Service Workers," published by the Women's Research and Education Institute, a Washington-based non-profit organization.

"Women are hit harder during a recession because their wages are lower than men's in the first place, and they are less likely to have savings," said Betty Dooley, executive director of the research group. "Their skills are broader and less transferable to new jobs. Fewer women than men are eligible for unemployment insurance. And because this recession hit the service sector the hardest -- where women make up 53 percent of all workers -- there are few jobs in our present economy for them."

To analyze the effect of the recession on women, the research institute studied federal data. Staff members Anne J. Stone and Nancy Peplinsky wrote the report.

Some of the findings:

* In 1990, there were 10.2 million women in retail trades and 23 million in service occupations, both fields hit hard by the recession.

* In 1987, 680,000 of the women who were heads of households worked in sales. Of that number, 36.5 percent were near or below the poverty level.

* In 1987, 1.7 million female heads of household worked in service jobs, and 50 percent were at or near poverty levels.

* In 1990, women earned $18,096 annually, men $25,220. Women in retail earned $15,184 annually, men $26,260. In service jobs, women made $11,960, men $16,640.

* In 1991, 2.6 million women who wanted to work full time could find only part-time jobs. In sales, 512,000 women were involuntary part-time workers; in service jobs, there were 951,000 women working part time who wanted full-time jobs.

Ironically, the study shows that many of today's unemployed women come from the ranks of the 2 million women who entered the work force between 1980 and 1983, the last major recession.

"These women got sales and service jobs in the early 1980s after their husbands lost their jobs in manufacturing," said Dooley. "Their families now depend on two-earner salaries."

Another problem: The proportion of women who get unemployment compensation is declining, the study shows. "Cities and states have budget crunches," Dooley said. "In the last recession, Congress allocated money to extend unemployment benefits for full-time workers." The Senate has passed a bill extending jobless benefits, but President Bush is expected to veto it.

And there are few job openings. "The likelihood that workers who lost sales or service jobs will find new ones soon is clearly smaller than it was in the early 1980s, when employment was growing in those areas," said Dooley. "In the current recession, the service sector is reducing its work force, not increasing it."

Hannah J. Hiles, assistant professor of economics at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich., agrees: "Employers tend to keep their experienced people through a recession, but they lay off part-time people and those at the bottom of the heap -- and they are women."

Hiles, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, expects the job market to be "very bleak" for the next two years. "Even if consumer buying goes up, it doesn't mean employers will start hiring," she said.

The report asks Congress to reform unemployment compensation to include part-time workers and to extend the benefit period. White House Budget Director Richard Darman has turned down Democrats' attempts to extend unemployment benefits.

Hiles added: "The callous view is that if these women get through these hard times, they eventually will get jobs."

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