Whether because they work in caring, people-facing jobs or because their hours have been cut, working class women are far less likely to have been able to work from home during the pandemic. This is a class and gender issue, write Tracey Warren (University of Nottingham), Clare Lyonette (University of Warwick) and the UK Women’s Budget Group.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought into stark relief the essential work undertaken by working class women, but it brings severe risks to their working lives and well-being. For many, there are deepening problems of job loss, work instability, financial hardship and great insecurity. Meanwhile, the privileged few are protected from these difficulties and, indeed, the world’s billionaires are seeing their already huge fortunes grow even larger as a direct result of the pandemic.
These are class matters. They are gender matters too: the working lives of working class women are heavily and negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Working class women’s essential work during the pandemic
Working class women perform essential work. Frequently found working in the ‘5C’ jobs of caring, cleaning, catering, clerical work and cashiering, they help care for children, sick and frail elderly, clean the nation’s buildings, cook and serve our food, administer institutions, and staff our shops. The work that they do, and their key skills, are fundamental to our everyday lives but they are under-valued and under-rewarded.
The pandemic quickly highlighted how vital this work is, but it brings a variety of serious risks for working class women’s working lives. There has been time squeeze and work intensification for some, a desperate search for new jobs for others, alongside more unpaid care looking after sick family members, caring for children with school and nursery closures, self-isolation and home-schooling.
For women employed as cleaners and non-essential shop workers, the pandemic puts jobs at risk and cuts hours, with stark financial ramifications. For other women working in close contact with customers, clients and patients, COVID-19 brings work intensification and life-threatening health risks (e.g. those undertaking personal care in care homes and hospitals without adequate PPE).
The pandemic created the deepest problems for working class families in financial hardship, with restricted inside and outside space and limited access to the internet and computing facilities for homeworking and home-schooling.
Who are key workers?
Large numbers of working class women are key workers, providing essential work across the UK. Fully 60% of women working in ‘semi-routine and routine’ jobs were key workers in June 2020. Large percentages of managerial and professional workers are key workers too, of course (Figure 1 – and see the government list of those ‘critical workers’ who could access schools or educational settings for their children during lockdown). Women in general are over-concentrated in frontline health and social care, education and childcare (Figure 2) but working class women are also employed in face-to-face roles, in food retail for example. These are jobs with high levels of social interaction and hence high risks of virus exposure. They also increase the risks for other family members.
Figure 1: Which class groups of women and men were key workers?
Notes: Women and men aged 18-65. Employed in both June 2020 and Wave i.
Figure 2: Which sectors do the key workers work in?
Notes: Women and men aged 18-65. Employed in both June 2020 and Wave I.
How many hours were women working during lockdown?
We know already that working class women workers are far more likely to be employed part-time than are men and middle class women. Part-time employment brings a range of well-established negatives (such as lower hourly wages) than full-time work, and fewer opportunities for career progression, among other disadvantages.
Working class women are more likely to be primary carers than are middle-class women, and more often in a financially-strained household context where (low-waged) male partners work long weeks in precarious jobs. Their caring roles bring significant interruptions to women’s employment over the course of their lives, in addition to shorter hours when in paid work in order to manage the ‘double shift’.
During lockdown, substantial numbers of workers saw their hours in paid work cut to zero (Figure 3), largely due to employees being furloughed, with severe financial consequences.
Figure 3: Hours worked before and after lockdown
Notes: Employed women and men aged 18-65. Hours worked last week in all jobs and self-employment. Part-time work = <30. Full-time hours = 30+.
Many more working class women than men or women in middle-class jobs saw their already shorter weekly hours cut back. While 31% of all women and 29% of all men did no hours of paid work in April, this figure increased to almost half (43%) of working class women (compared to just 20% of women in professional or managerial roles. Figure 4). These figures dropped in June for all groups, but still 29% of working class women (and 27% of working class men) were doing no hours of paid work in June, compared with 14% of women, and 13% of men, in professional or managerial roles.
Figure 4: Hours worked before and after lockdown by class
Where were women working during lockdown?
Class shapes the places and spaces where we carry out our paid work. For example, the jobs held by many working class people are far less open to being carried out in their own home. Moreover, even when work tasks could technically and even easily be done from home for some or all of the time (various types of office work for example), the flexibility to home-work is not available to all groups of eligible workers equally: this ‘perk’ is more reserved for the middle class. Having some autonomy over where you carry out your work is associated with improved work-life balance, especially when working from home in a comfortable environment.
The pandemic intensified interest in who could work from home. During lockdown, working class women were far less likely to be able to work from the relative safety of home than were women in managerial or professional roles: fully 80% of working class women said they were ‘never’ working from home in June. This contrasts with far fewer (44%) of women in professional or managerial roles.
More generally, good quality flexible working arrangements can facilitate balancing increased demands of care and housework, with those pressures intensified during lockdown. Working class women have least access to better quality flexi options like being able to vary their hours informally should they need to (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Percentage of women who had access to formal and informal flexible working arrangements in their workplace.
Notes: Women aged 18-65. Employed in both June 2020 and Wave I
Women’s work and well-being during lockdown
Decent paid work can have a real and positive impact on the well-being of a worker and their family. Pre-pandemic, it was working class women who already faced severe and enduring disadvantage in the workplace, over-concentrated in jobs with a range of lower quality characteristics such as low wages and little opportunity to use one’s skills.
Lockdown brought new intensely negative impacts on psychological wellbeing. Higher proportions of working class women reported lower happiness than usual (Figure 6), in a context of increasingly insecure jobs, unsafe paid working environments, alongside additional housework and caring responsibilities.
Figure 6: Which workers were less happy than usual?
Notes: Employed men and women aged 18-65. ‘Less so’/’much less’ happy than usual, all things considered.
In the first month after lockdown, fully 41% of working class women were also experiencing psychological distress (‘caseness’, compared with 25% in 2017-19), the highest proportion across all classes.
What should the government do to support working class women?
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the essential work being undertaken by working class women, but it brings severe risks to their working lives and well-being. The effects of lockdowns, local and national, are far-reaching and extremely damaging for working class women who provide vital work, both paid and unpaid. During the first lockdown, working class women were the women most likely to be furloughed and are at highest risk of furlough during the winter lockdown. The government announced a second national lockdown on the day that the first furlough scheme was due to end. An extension to the scheme was announced along with the second lockdown but many of those previously furloughed will have already been made redundant by employers. At the same time the increase in Universal Credit introduced at the start of lockdown is due to end in March, so low paid workers and those who lose their jobs will be worse off. People claiming ‘legacy benefits’ that pre-dated Universal Credit saw no increase in their benefit rates.
If the government is serious about building back better, it needs to take urgent action to protect the employment and incomes of working class women. It is unrealistic to roll back the furlough scheme while there is likely to be local or regional restrictions. In the short term, the uplift to Universal Credit rates should continue, and be extended to legacy benefits. Child benefit should be substantially increased and the rates of local housing allowance increased in line with average rents. All workers should be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, and the rate should be increased to enable people who are ill to self-isolate. And the government should be planning for a care-led recovery – investing in social infrastructure (health, care and education) as well as physical infrastructure. Investment in social infrastructure creates more than twice as many jobs as investment in physical infrastructure and we have seen only too clearly how care is as vital to the economy as roads and rail.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the COVID-19 blog, nor LSE.
The Carrying the work burden of the COVID-19 pandemic: working class women in the UK project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 (Project ES/V009400/1). The ‘Understanding Society’ COVID-19 study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Health Foundation. Fieldwork for the survey is carried out by Ipsos MORI and Kantar. Understanding Society is an initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and various government departments, with scientific leadership by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex. The research data are distributed by the UK Data Service.