NorthJersey.com: Protecting job flexibility, benefits for women of color key to economic recovery

This op-ed originally appeared on NorthJersey.com.

The New York Times asks “Will Biden’s Stimulus Package Help Reverse the ‘Shecession’?” The answer is that it’s a start, but we still have a long way to go to help women of color who were displaced from the workforce by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the first 10 months of the pandemic, women have experienced nearly 1 million more job losses than men. What’s more, in December 2020, Black, Hispanic and Asian women accounted for all of women’s job losses that month, and 154,000 Black women dropped out of the labor force entirely. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for Black women age 20 and older is 25% higher than the national average of all Americans in that same age group; the rate is just under 50% higher for Latinx women.

These heightened rates of job loss, paired with the growing need for caregiving at home, caused more women to seek more flexible work opportunities that allow them to continue supporting themselves and their families.

We are seeing a trend in communities of color during this time of economic devastation. This new model of flexible gig-work has given working women a renewed sense of autonomy over their financial security, labor opportunities and work schedule. Platforms such as Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates have proven a vital resource for women as they strive to put food on the table while also managing their responsibilities at home and economic well-being. 

As many as 20% of New Jersey drivers on Lyft reported driving more during the pandemic due to being laid off, furloughed or having their hours or pay cut as a result of the pandemic. Furthermore, these drivers are more likely to be women and more likely to identify as members of a racial or ethnic minority group. For many of these women, it is critical that they maintain flexibility in their work schedule while juggling their various obligations as mothers, wives, caregivers, and household supporters.

Most importantly, independent app-based work gives historically marginalized and constrained groups the power to be their own boss. This sense of freedom plays an integral role in the empowerment of women of color, especially during these difficult times. 

COVID-19 also revealed that our current benefits system is outdated and does not reflect our rapidly evolving 21st century workforce. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, or position, deserves access to comprehensive benefits and workplace protections. 

Whether it’s gig-work or part-time traditional work, we must provide a safety net for all Americans. We must redouble our efforts to expand access to portable benefits and protections regardless of employment classification. The protections that traditional employment often provides full-time employees must also be offered to part-time workers, independent workers, and contractors.

As an advocate for women of color working toward the equity of disadvantaged communities, I urge New Jersey legislators to come together and have the Assembly Labor Committee develop legislation that ensures all workers — whether app-based or traditional part-time employees — are offered the protections and benefits they deserve. 

But offering these benefits shouldn’t mean taking away the other equally important benefits of contract work. We must listen to the voices of our working women and communities of color and protect their right to independent, flexible work. We must stand in solidarity with those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and ensure their interests are represented in policy decisions surrounding app-based work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the economic inequities that Black and Brown women across the state face. It’s imperative that our elected officials prioritize solutions that help to break down barriers and lift up marginalized communities.  

I urge legislators to listen to the voices of our working women and communities of color. Please stand with them to ensure they are guaranteed the flexibility to work when, where, and for however long they choose while also gaining the protections and benefits they deserve.

Vivian Cox Fraser is president and CEO of the Urban League of Essex County.

Flexible Work for New Jersey
Flexible Work for New Jersey