In This Episode
Abdul reflects on the economic consequences of COVID-19. Abdul talks to Jane Oates, President of WorkingNation and former Labor Department Official under President Obama, about the unequal burden of lost livelihoods among women.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: The drop in COVID-19 cases we’ve been experiencing seems to have ended last week, as case transmission stabilizes at early November levels. Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine is approved for emergency use by the FDA. They’ll start rolling out early this week. And vaccines are working. Nursing homes, which were some of the first to receive vaccines, have seen a drastic decline in mortality. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I want to level with you about what’s made this pandemic so gnarly. It was never just a public health crisis, it was a health crisis tangled into an economic crisis all wrapped up in the shell of a political crisis. The political crisis seems to have abated, at least for now. And the public health crisis, it’s not over, but there’s a clear way forward. But the economic crisis part, that part is going to last the longest, and here’s what I’m worried about. It’s common to talk about this crisis like it’s affected all of us. It hasn’t. It’s more like the bottom half of our economy has just been paralyzed, while the top half was given steroids. At the very top, billionaires, they made a trillion dollars last year. A trillion dollars! Honestly, you could fund half the entire COVID relief package with what billionaires made last year and they’d be as rich as they were coming into this pandemic. That’s not because of income. It’s because for the first time, the stock market fundamentally decoupled from the labor market. In April, we saw stocks soar even though unemployment was hitting an all-time high. There’s a lot of reasons why that happened. But one of them is that people with enough money to invest in stocks aren’t the ones losing jobs. The pandemic often changed where we worked and how we worked, but we usually still had work. And amid all that chaos, people were looking to save. So stocks soared. For the people whose jobs require going places and doing things, cooking food or driving busses or manufacturing things, the experience of COVID-19 has been far different. These are the folks who lost jobs and for many, those jobs still haven’t come back, if they ever come back at all. And for folks who didn’t lose jobs, keeping them meant having to go out into the pandemic every day to earn a living. We called them, quote unquote “essential workers,” when what we really meant was expendable workers. At least that’s how it feels now, that raising the minimum wage is the first piece of the COVID-19 relief package that everyone seems to be OK leaving on the chopping block. But here’s the part we’re not talking enough about: that women, whether white collar or a quote unquote “essential” were forced out of the workforce in huge numbers. An estimated 2.3 million women were nudged out of the workforce in 2020, bringing participation among women in the labor force to just 57%, a level we haven’t seen since 1988. These women aren’t looking for work, so they don’t even get counted in our unemployment statistics. Instead, they’ve been nudged out of the workforce for a number of reasons. One of the most important ones is child care. The obvious explanation here is school and daycare closures, which have forced women to choose between work from home or school from home. The less obvious and probably more important factor here is the gender norm that still dictates that women are responsible for child care. And don’t forget, women still earn three quarters as much as men, even less among women of color. Indeed, all of these problems intersect with race and ethnicity in ways that leave women of color systematically worse off. But this isn’t just a pandemic issue. We still don’t provide universal child care in this country. And so the pandemic just exacerbated an issue that vexes too many women, as it is. If we are serious about using this pandemic as a stress test, a way to identify the brokenness in our society and to fix it, then we have to be serious about solving the child care crisis in this country that is forcing women out of the workforce every day. While we’re at it, we should also be doing something about gender norms that tell us that women, not men, should be providing child care in the first place. Today, we’ll talk to Jane Oates. She’s a former Labor Department official in the Obama administration and president of WorkingNation, an organization dedicated to addressing the skills gap that keeps people out of the workforce. She’ll talk to us about the disproportionate impact this pandemic has had on women after the break.
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Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Our guest today is Jane Oates. She is the president of WorkingNation, an organization dedicated to addressing the skills gaps that we have in our economy and empowering people to thrive. And she was the former Assistant Secretary for Labor under President Barack Obama. Jane, thank you so much for taking the time.
Jane Oates: Thank you, Abdul.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Today, we’re going to talk a bit about the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on working women, and perhaps a bit about why that has happened. Can you give us a picture of how COVID has shaped the economic outcomes and opportunities for women?
Jane Oates: Three buckets: first bucket, I would say women are disproportionately impacted because they’re caregivers and schools have been closed and daycares have been closed, so they haven’t been able to work outside their home. The second real bucket is that the industries that have employed women, traditionally—hospitality, restaurants, retail—have just been devastated during the pandemic. And the third bucket that I think is, is less obvious is women-owned businesses. Women-owned businesses have been more impacted than those owned by their male counterparts. And we can look at some BLS data and some Small Business Administration data, but I think the most obvious is a study that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did in the fall, saying that literally 60% of women business owners said their business was negatively impacted by the pandemic and that they didn’t see hiring in the foreseeable future. So that’s devastating because literally those small businesses, whether women-owned or owned by minorities or men, are the pulse of a local community. So when they suffer, the whole community suffers.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And what explains that difference in women-owned businesses? Is it is it because of the sectors and industries that women tend to own businesses in, or is it something else?
Jane Oates: Well, I think there’s probably a double-edged sword there. Yes, it’s the sectors they’re in, disproportionately those hospitality and retail industries, but also women have had a much more difficult time getting funding. I haven’t seen the numbers yet on the aid that was put out by the federal government, but that’ll be disaggregated by gender and race at some point and open to the public. But, you know, VCs and venture capitalists generally aren’t likely to invest in women-owned businesses the same way they are in those businesses owned particularly by white men. So I would say men of color and certainly women of color are more impacted than, than just those women-owned businesses.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s as tragic as it is important to think about. Right? That so much of what has allowed businesses to thrive right now is whether or not you can get capital and getting capital as a function of what a group of folks, usually white men in a boardroom, think about your business, which has a lot to do with how they think about you and your ability to run your business. Can you speak to us about—those three buckets were really helpful in terms of organizing how we should be thinking about this grave challenge here. Can you give us a sense of the way that that wraps around the other challenge of discrimination, which is on race and ethnicity, how has COVID-19 impacted women of color in particular?
Jane Oates: Well, you know, I think it’s very important for people to look at numbers, to look at the data, because they might think, obviously, knowing where I come from, that: oh, I’m a liberal and I’m definitely going to feel this way. No, I’m a I’m a policy person who looks at numbers and I look at numbers because looking at the data for how people were impacted and who was impacted really help you get the most targeted, positive solutions that get you solving problems quicker. So the data is really clear that women of color were twice as impacted by unemployment as their white female counterparts, and all women were twice as impacted as all men. So clearly, we talked about those reasons before Abdul El-Sayed so I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but clearly that means that we need to target solutions. I would call out specific numbers. You know, the Bureau of Labor Statistics BLS disaggregated by age, by gender, by race. And you can see clearly that young women of color, women 18 to 24, 20% of them are looking at unemployment. And think of that. Maybe people will sit back and say: well, they maybe they’re dependent on their parents and it’s not so bad. No! That’s not the way to look at it at all. These are young women who are beginning their careers. And if they start off on this really negative path at the beginning of their career, they are less likely to ever get on a really positive career track. They’re getting a slow start. They’re probably going to come back to part-time jobs or jobs that pay just the minimum wage. And no one—unless we do something very deliberate—no one is really going to talk to them about getting on a career path, building their skills so that they can make a livable wage in a good quality job. And just so we’re clear, I see a quality job as paying decent wages, having benefits and having some flexibility, and some ability to learn while you’re employed.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That is such an important point. And we see this across the board with this pandemic, is that all of the pathologies in the ways that we treat people, the resources that we deny people, the barriers that we put in front of them, shape both the public health and also the economic consequences of this of the set of challenges. There’s been a broad debate about what we think is going to happen with the economy, hopefully once the virus abates, which, of course, is a, is a big hopefully. And there are debates about whether or not the economy is going to come roaring back and we’re going to have this quote unquote “V- shaped” or we’re going to have this quote, unquote “K-shaped” recovery, where the folks on the bottom of the economy are going to do worse and the folks at the top of the economy are going to do better. And of course, it isn’t just a simple calculus of, of income, but it has a lot to do with exactly what we’ve been talking about: sex and gender and then also race. And so my question about these trends is, do we think that it’s going to correct itself in time? Or do we think that there are a set of circumstances that have almost been locked in: a woman-owned business shuts down or a woman leaves the workforce and doesn’t really see a way back because of the gap in her resume? What is your prediction about this: how this happens, and probably more importantly is how do we make sure that whatever recovery we get is truly an equitable recovery for everyone?
Jane Oates: So first of all, I think we are destined to be the worst part of our past unless we do something strategic as we build back. So unless we are uniformly committed to building a more inclusive, supportive economy, we’re not going to get it. And I would say on a positive note, this morning, the Biden administration announced that they’re going to restructure the small business loans to really target only those businesses for the next few weeks that have 20 or fewer employees. I think that’s a great way to get at it. I want all businesses to succeed, but clearly the businesses that are struggling the most are those small businesses. And I think your point is so well taken. We are definitely in a K-shaped recovery right now. If one more person tells me how great their 401K is doing, or their thrift savings, or their stock portfolio, while I’m watching people standing in line for hours to get food—outside of Texas! I mean, certainly we have to stop and say what’s going on in Texas right now is heartbreaking. But I’m in Northern Virginia and there, I see lines here with people waiting to get a bag of groceries. Those are not people who are gaming the system. Those are people who are hungry and trying to feed their children.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, so, so much of what we keep coming up against with this pandemic, in a sort of sine qua non in a public health generally, is that what you do in the midst of a disaster is what you prepare for. And we were so ill prepared for both the public health consequences and then also the economic consequences. We could go back and talk about the kind of policies we should have had in place that would have padded people from the consequences of this and protected them, allowed women to stay in the workforce, protected women-owned business, really focused on the most vulnerable sectors of our economy in which women tend to work—by the way, as a function of of misogyny—what would we have done? What are some of the policies that we should have had in place that hopefully coming out of this, we will learn from this experience and put in place?
Jane Oates: I think there’s no question that leadership, whether at the federal level, the state level or the local level, is critical. And I think what we had in this pandemic was 50 states and 1,000s of cities trying to figure out what to do. I think in the future we need OSHA to come out early and often, along with CDC, with protocols for a safe workplace. People shouldn’t be figuring out how to open schools one by one. We and, we’ve seen that in the last few weeks, CDC come out with recommendations. But before that, you know, many small private schools were opening and figuring it out—should the teachers wear face shields, should they have random checks of temperature, should they be doing, should they be doing testing? I mean, all of these things could have been done from a central location. And I bring OSHA to the table on this because workplaces are used to dealing with OSHA. And OSHA was completely silent during this pandemic. We saw early on the problems at meatpacking plants. But, you know, those problems were everywhere, they just weren’t getting headlines. And we should have been helping manufacturers get back to work safely, figuring out—not figuring out for themselves, but using really scientific methods brought to them by OSHA. And then, of course, OSHA should have been visiting randomly those workplaces to make sure people were following the protocols.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That is a really, really important insight. Right, because, because the other part of this is also for folks who have had to go to work, we know that workplaces are designed around usually the needs of white men. And what we do and what we enforce in those workplaces also change the work experience and the sustainability of the work experience for people who don’t fit that profile. And that’s a, that’s a really important insight. I really appreciate you raising it. I want to step back and ask: we are nowhere near pay equity in this country, not even close, and I think the buckets that you applied to the circumstance of COVID-19—the differences in the jobs that are available to women, the precarity of access to the workforce in a world where we don’t invest in universal child care—those are a part of the equation, but they’re not the whole thing. Can you give us a sense of what we have to do as a society to get to the point where we finally pay equally for equal work?
Jane Oates: Well, first, we have to get rid of the myth that women are supplementing their family income, that all males are the primary breadwinner. It’s just not true. I mean, we’re getting to a much more equitable society in homes where a couple decides which one of the couple makes the most money and which one is the best suited to do direct child care. Probably when I was 20, I didn’t know any men who were stay-at-home dads. Today, I know a significant number of wonderful stay-at-home dads from heterosexual couples who really love nurturing their children and love being the one to do drop off and pick up. And we should welcome that as a society because whomever is the best parent to do that day-to-day stuff should be the one doing it. It shouldn’t be based on their gender. So that’s number one. But number two, to get at this pay equity issue, I mean, part of the problem is that women are not in the highest paying jobs and sectors. So the best way to get women’s earnings up, is to get them more represented in fields that pay more—tech, data analytics, cybersecurity—all those things where there are jobs and demand, we should be targeting specific training programs for women. We know they can do it. There’s not a question that there’s anything in your DNA that makes you unable to perform those technical functions. But, what we do is too many times the woman is the only woman or God forbid, the only Black woman in a training class and everything is geared to the men in that class. So people aren’t thinking about how women may learn differently, how women may express themselves differently. I selfishly think that women are hardwired to go into tech. Women, mostly by nature are problem solvers, right? They, they like to solve problems and they like to feel that they’re doing good. I mean men or the same way, but if we saw tech as a solution to problems—community problems, individual problems—more women would go into it. And I think they’d thrive.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That’s a really interesting insight. I am wondering— Sarah and I, we have in a lot of ways struggled in this pandemic, similar to all families with young kids, we have a three year old and Sarah works full time as a psychiatrist and we’ve been really lucky to have family support—but how important do you think child care and the precarity around schools opening up and the fact that we rely on schools for child care in our in our society, how has that shaped the experience of this pandemic? And what would it mean for us to finally be a society that guarantees child care? And what would it mean in particular for women and access to stability in the workforce?
Jane Oates: Well, I think it would be a game changer. I mean, the bottom line is affordable, high-quality child care that’s available during work hours. You know, a school is so confusing, which you’ll soon find out when your three year old goes to school. Not only does it not match the hours of work, but they do crazy things like, you know, the first Monday of every month, they have a teacher development day. Well, what are you supposed to do if you’re both working full time on that Monday? And, you know, we’re, we’re so privileged, you know, we’ve probably—you and I have always had jobs where we got paid leave. Having paid leave is critically important so that people, if they do have to take back and forth with their partner that first Monday off, they get paid for it. I mean, that’s a legitimate thing. I mean, they have to be there for their child. So I do think that affordable, high-quality child care and schools reopening are critical to getting women and all people, back to normal and back to work. And, you know, just as I said, with the schools closing that first Monday of the month, this idea that some schools are opening on a hybrid schedule where they’re going to be learning from home these days and learning from school these days: explain to me how someone works around that. Explain to me how you get back to work, including—according to BL 25% of people are still working remotely, but how do you do that when you’re dropping your kid off and picking them up from school at these odd hours? So it’s, it’s made life very complicated for working parents. And more importantly, it’s made life impossible for people who are out of work trying to figure out how to get back into the workforce.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That entry and exit into and out of the workforce, I think is a really important point, because if your economic circumstances force you out of the workforce, the entry way back in isn’t altogether obvious, right? And it’s like you standing there trying to get on the highway and find that lane when you can get in and cars are already moving forward, and I think it creates a real barrier to women’s reentry and then long term ultimately trajectory in our workforce. I want to ask you—we ask everybody this question—what have you been doing, this pandemic? How has the pandemic treated you?
Jane Oates: Well, first of all, I’m so fortunate. I’m over sixty five, so I’ve had both shots. So I am one of the blessed, right? But before that, I was staying home, working remotely—again very privileged to be able to continue my job remotely—and doing pretty much normal work activities. In fact, WorkingNation, because they’re based on work and skills and getting people back has been more busy than usual. You know, we’ve been busier than ever. But personally, because, as I said, I am so privileged to be healthy, to be able to have health care, to be able to get my shots finally, in the last month—during the pandemic, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to give back. And it’s what keeps me focused and happy. I see the goodness in people. I in my community, work in a food bank, have been shopping for the food bank. When I said there are lines, I know that from personal experience. I see how long people are willing to wait for what I think is mediocre-quality food. It’s like no frills food, basically, but they’re thrilled to get it. And I’ve also been cooking once a month at a local shelter. And I would just say to people, if you don’t know where the shelters are in your community and what you can do to help them, get acquainted with them. I mean, these are wonderful places that give individuals and families temporary housing and give them that network that they need to get back on their feet. It is a privilege for me to meet those people once a month, and a challenge sometimes to find things that they like to eat that aren’t the same things they’ve always eaten. So that that’s kept me kind of focused. So, and I think I’m not alone. I think Abdul, so many people have used—you know, I was on a plane a lot before, I traveled a lot for work. So that time that I was on a plane, I figured I could easily give those hours to community service. And I think so many of our friends and neighbors have done the same thing. This pandemic has, for many of us, brought out the best in the people in our communities.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: This is a beautiful reminder Jane, and really appreciate that and thank you for your service, both on your private time and also your public service to the country. And thank you for the work that you do. That was Jane Oates, she’s the president of WorkingNation, focused on addressing the disparities in skills that folks need to step up in our economy. And really appreciate your time and your insights on this critical challenge that we faced around making sure that we address the economic consequences that this pandemic has had, in particular for women.
Jane Oates: Thank you, Abdul.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: New to the pod this week is D.C. Diagnosis, a special segment brought to you in partnership by the Kaiser Health News Foundation and us at Crooked Media. Here’s my interview with Julie Rovner, Kaiser Health News as Washington correspondent on the D.C. Diagnosis.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We’re going to talk a little bit about Secretary-designee Xavier Becerra confirmation. So tell us, where are we in the confirmation of the Secretary-designate?
Julie Rovner: Well, he’s had both of his hearings. It’s actually in the Senate only one committee votes on nominees. In the case of Health and Human Services, that would be the Finance Committee. But the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee gets what’s called a courtesy hearing. So they actually had their hearing first, where members got to ask questions of Attorney General Becerra. And then the Finance Committee had its hearing the next day. So the hearings are done. Senators get to ask questions for the record if they want to. And one would assume, if nothing odd happens, that the Finance Committee would vote sometime the middle of next week and that perhaps it could go to the Senate floor in the coming days after that.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: There have been some questions, at least in the public discussion, about whether or not the Attorney General is going to make it through. What’s your read on it? Is there any turbulence? And if so, what’s causing it?
Julie Rovner: There’s definitely turbulence. I think Democrats are pretty satisfied that this nomination will make it through. There seem to be enough votes. The tenor of the hearings was not so much, you know, if you get confirmed but, you know, when you become secretary, will you do this for us? So that’s usually a telling sign, which is not to say he’s getting an easy ride. There’s two things that have surprised me. One is that Republicans are criticizing him because he’s not a doctor and not a medical doctor. But there have been 12 secretaries of health and human services since they took the Department of Education out. And only three of them have been MDs. The plurality of them have actually been former governors. But there have been, you know, ex members of the House before and ex members of the Senate, which is an ex member of the House—he was on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. The other thing that surprised me was the ranking Republican on the Senate Health Committee, Richard Burr, who is a health care expert, particularly a public health expert, sort of chided Becerra, saying, well, you know: serving on a health subcommittee in Congress doesn’t make you a subject matter expert. And I thought that’s kind of how Burr became a subject matter expert with serving on health committees in Congress. So it’s a little surprised to see that coming from him. I mean, there are people who are asking, you know, what qualifications do you have to to become Secretary of HHS other than running, you know, a multi-thousand employee department at the California Department of Justice and having been on the Ways and Means Health subcommittee for two decades?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, it’s a, we never see any hypocrisy out of politicians. So this is something new.
Julie Rovner: Yeah, but this is a little bit, I mean, it’s, I’ve seen a lot of criticisms of a lot of HHS secretarial nominees, but these two are really kind of new ones to me.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Of course, you know, the secretary isn’t the only confirmation that is required in HHS. There are some other key health positions as well. Who are they and where do they stand in the process?
Julie Rovner: Well, there were hearings this week for two more positions at HHS. The surgeon general there, the former and possibly future Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, was before the HELP committee, along with Rachel Levin, who’s the Secretary of Health in the state of Pennsylvania and would become the first openly transgender person confirmed by the Senate, assuming she is confirmed and it does seem that that’s likely to be the case. There were some pretty hard questioning, not so much for, for former Surgeon General Murthy, although there was a story this week about sort of an eye catching amount of money that he made while he was not in government service, providing advice to some large corporations. But that actually didn’t even come up at the hearing.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So the big question here is, how is this affecting the COVID-19 response? We know that that’s mainly being run out of the White House, but you really do want to have a staffed up HHS because a lot of the functions that the government has to be able to enact come through that department. Is this holding up the response? Can we map any of this to the continued challenges with, with COVID vaccine deployment?
Julie Rovner: Well, as you say, a lot of this is coming out of the White House and of course the two places in HHS where the other sort of large part is coming out, the CDC, has a director that doesn’t need Senate confirmation. That’s why Dr. Walensky is installed there already. And, of course, Dr. Fauci, who was the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and remains in his job. And the NIH director, his boss, is also going to remain in his job. So those are relatively stable places. But, yes, it would be very helpful, obviously, to have a secretary and deputy secretary and an assistant secretary for health, and a surgeon general, all of which are moving. It would also help to have a new director of the Food and Drug Administration, which has not been named yet, to a lot of people surprise. But again, all of those are important positions that would certainly facilitate a lot of what gets done in the department beyond what’s being done now from the White House and the CDC and the NIH.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, we’ll keep an eye on it. And we really appreciate your insights. That’s Julie Rovner and that is our first D.C. Diagnosis.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: As usual, here’s what I’m watching right now: the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been granted an emergency use authorization by the FDA. Doses are being distributed early this week. This vaccine has a major advantage. It’s one single shot, meaning half the amount of logistics and deployment, and the ability to count someone is fully vaccinated three weeks faster. There are small differences in the effectiveness as compared to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. I worry about that, because some people might try and hold out for a different vaccine than the one that is most immediately available. And to be clear, people should get the first shot available. More than anything else, we need to head this virus and its new variants off at the curve. Getting your vaccine as soon as it’s available is absolutely critical. A new COIVD-19 variant was discovered in New York B1526, which has many of the same mutations that has increased transmissibility in other variants. This one appears to have been around since November, spreading quickly in New York. This variant joins another one that was born in the USA that’s been spreading across California this fall as well. And, of course, other variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil. All of this reminds us that it’s not just about any one of the variants, but the potential for new variants that is most important. Which reminds me did I mention: we need to get as many vaccines and arms as possible. That’s it for this week. Next week, we talked to Chris Jackson, a pollster at Ipsos, who’ll help us understand public opinion about the pandemic and how it’s changing. If you’d like to show. I hope you’ll tell others. Rep us by picking up your America Dissected swag today. Our Science Always Wins are back, along with our super soft sweats and tees. Crooked.com/store. Oh, and don’t forget to head on over to my newsletter, The Incision at Incision.substack.com. I hope you’ll check out my post from last Thursday, about how I think we need a lesson from the New Deal to put artists back to work fighting vaccine hesitancy, or my conversation with Mayor Michael Tubbs about guaranteed basic income. Incision.substack.com.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Veronica Simonetti mixes and masters the show. Production support from Tara Terpstra, Lyra Smith and Alison Falzetta. The theme song is by Taka Yasazawa and Alex Sigiura. Our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Sandy Girard and me: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, your host. Thanks for listening.