The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to have a devastating impact on women and working mothers. Since February 2020, more than 2.3 million women have left the workforce, putting women's labor force participation rate at 57%, the lowest its been since 1988, according to data from the National Women's Law Center.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Vice President Kamala Harris referred to this "mass exodus of women from the workforce" as a "national emergency" that "demands a national solution." In January, she and President Joe Biden announced a new White House Gender Policy Council that will focus on many of the promises Biden made in "The Biden Agenda for Women" plan released last summer.
In the plan, Biden laid out five main bullet points that he will focus on during his administration that will benefit women including improving economic security for women; expanding access to health care; helping women navigate work and family; ending violence against women; and protecting and empowering women.
While all of these promises require bold and ambitious policies, CNBC Make It spoke to a few experts about the key policies Biden and his team, who are one month into office, can focus on during their first 100 days that would significantly impact women during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
When looking at short-term changes that can have a big impact, C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, says that passing the $1.9 trillion relief package is a move "in the right direction."
Right now the relief plan, called the American Rescue Plan, is being debated in Congress. If passed, Mason says there are a lot of things in the stimulus bill that will "directly benefit women" including $1,400 stimulus checks, an expansion of unemployment insurance, at least $3,000 a year to parents for each child and a $40 billion investment in the child-care sector. This $40 billion is in addition to the $10 billion that was set aside in the December stimulus package that will go toward helping women re-enter the workforce and helping rebuild the pool of child-care workers.
"Another huge thing that's included is paid sick and family leave, which is really important, and also housing and food assistance," Mason says. "All those things are really important to women right now, especially since they've been disproportionately impacted."
Biden's current plan is an extension of the paid sick and family leave that was included in last year's Covid relief CARES Act. Under the CARES Act, at least two weeks of paid sick leave were given to workers at 100 percent of their pay and an additional 12 weeks of paid time off was given to workers at two-thirds of their pay in order to care for a child or family member due to Covid-19. However, unlike the CARES Act, which allowed employers with less than 50 employees and those with more than 500 employees to opt out of these paid leave requirements, Biden's relief plan calls for an elimination of this exemption rule so that more workers have access to paid time off.
Though Biden's proposed economic stimulus bill includes a $40 billion investment in the child-care industry, Mason says that money will only address short-term changes. "In the long-term, we need a new child-care infrastructure so that we can boost the wages of workers in that sector permanently," she says, adding that many child-care workers, who are overwhelmingly women, are "underpaid and under valued."
Roughly 95% of the child-care workforce is made up of women, reports the National Women's Law Center. In 2018, the typical pay for a woman working full-time in the child-care industry was just $14.38 per hour, or $29,900 annually. With full-time center-based care for an infant costing an average of $11,107 per year, according to NWLC data, this means that many child-care workers struggle to afford child-care services for their own children.
That's why in addition to increasing pay for child-care workers, Mason says the Biden administration needs to pass a policy that will make child care more affordable for all Americans so that no family has to spend more than 7 percent of their annual income on child-care services.
Though President Biden said in early February that he doesn't believe a $15 minimum wage hike will make it in the next Covid-19 relief bill, some experts believe that passing a stand-alone minimum wage bill, separate from the economic relief package, could have a significant impact on women.
Of the workers who will benefit from a $15 federal minimum wage hike, 59% are women, with nearly one in four of these women being Black or Latina, reports the Economic Policy Institute.
"When you lift wages for women, who would be the majority of those getting a raise, that helps to shrink race and gender wage gaps," says NWLC's VP for education and workplace justice Emily Martin. She explains that the Raise the Wage Act that Democrats reintroduced in January would not only increase the federal pay for minimum wage workers from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2025, but it would also increase pay for tipped workers, who are overwhelmingly women and who currently earn a federal minimum wage of just $2.13 per hour without tip money.
In January, House Democrats reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to eliminate pay discrimination and strengthen workplace protections for women. Right now, women, on average, are paid $0.82 for every dollar paid to men, with Black women, Native American women and Latinas being paid even less. If this act is passed, experts say it could have a big impact on closing the gender pay gap.
"The federal government definitely has a role to play in terms of enforcement of pay parity laws," says Mason. "Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act is really important [because] it discourages secrecy and promotes transparency, and workers are not penalized for discussing salary."
In addition to the act requiring companies to be more transparent about worker pay, the bill would also make it illegal for employers to require applicants to discuss salary history during the hiring process. Already, at least 14 states have state-wide bans on the salary history question.
Right now, Biden's team estimates that his proposed economic relief bill would extend paid leave to an additional 106 million workers who did not have access to this benefit during the pandemic. However, if Biden's proposed bill is passed, this measure will only be a temporary fix; it is set to expire in September.
As one of the only industrialized nations without paid family leave, experts are calling on Biden to pass a policy that will permanently grant paid family leave and paid sick leave to all working Americans. In an appearance on CBS News "Face the Nation" earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that mandated national family leave is "certainly something that President Biden is interested in."
"Ensuring that all employers have to provide those benefits to employees is a really important piece," says Martin. In 2019, more than 32 million American workers did not have access to paid sick leave and four out of five did not have access to paid family leave, reports the Center for American Progress.
In the National Women's Law Center "100 Wins, 100 Days" report, Martin and other NWLC experts detail how passing the Equality Act is critical in "clarifying that the prohibitions against sex discrimination include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity."
This act, NWLC experts write, will close "longstanding gaps in federal law and for the first time prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in public spaces, services, and all federally funded activities, providing important new legal protections for women and LGBTQ individuals."
While it will take more than just these policies to address all of the longstanding structural barriers women face, Mason explains how focusing on these policies and issues early on can easily set the tone for the rest of Biden's presidency.
"Now is not the time for austerity," she says. "It's time for bold action to not only address the current economic downturn, but to plan for the future and build strong infrastructures and strong systems so that when we have another crisis — like the pandemic or an another economic downturn — we have the support in place and the systems in place."