WASHINGTON — A sharp monthly rise in unemployment for women could be a sign that the economic slowdown has begun to hit working women with a force not seen in decades.
When the unemployment rate for women went from 4.6 percent in July to 5.3 percent in August, it was the largest one-month spike in the jobless rate for women in more than 33 years.
Black women were hit even harder, as their unemployment rate jumped 21 percent, from 7.5 percent in July to 9.1 percent in August.
Among single mothers and women with families, unemployment climbed to 9.6 percent in August — the highest level in 15 years.
By themselves, the figures provide only a one-month snapshot of labor-market activity and may be merely an aberration in the business cycle. But the increases are a reminder of the 2001 recession, which was the first in decades to see men and women lose jobs on an almost equal basis.
If the economic slump continues to echo the 2001 recession, the effect on working women only will worsen, according to a recent report by the Joint Economic Committee, a panel that includes Democratic and Republican members of Congress and studies U.S. economic issues.
"If the prior (2001) recession's trend holds, women will suffer equally to men in the 2008 recession," the report states. "Because women are disproportionately represented in state and local government services, their job losses are likely to grow in the latter part of the recession as state and local governments are forced to implement cutbacks in spending in areas that women are disproportionately employed, such as education and health care."
Kay Carey of Chicago is living that very scenario. An administrative assistant for a state social-services contractor, Carey was laid off in July when her department was phased out. She got the bad news after returning from vacation and only two weeks after moving into a new home.
"I've never been laid off before. I go to work when I'm sick. I go to work when I'm tired, so it's kind of hard for me, but I haven't broken," she said. "I'm trying to learn not to get up every morning at 5:45."
With nearly six months of unemployment benefits ahead of her, Carey, 47, is confident she'll be able to keep her home, but the financial strains already are showing.
Her daughter recently had to drop her classes at Tennessee State University because she's $3,000 short on her tuition and Carey couldn't get a loan to make up the difference. "It's really hard when you have a child that wants to go to school, but can't," she said.
The August jobs numbers may reflect softening consumer demand — in particular among women, said Vicky Lovell, acting research director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington. She noted that from July to August, nearly 11,000 jobs were lost at food and beverage stores, which typically employ many women.
"So as women consumers also feel the economic constrictions, they're cutting back on their spending," Lovell said.
Elizabeth Montiel of Hialeah, Fla., has noticed the change when she shops.
"When I go to different stores, Target and Wal-Mart, it's not like before," Montiel said. "You don't see a lot of customers. Even the employees are saying, 'Things are bad.' So people are being affected."
Montiel, 38, was one of nearly 200 employees laid off in June by Ocean Bank. Her part-time receptionist position allowed her to care for her special-needs daughter in the afternoons. But without a job, she's been unable to look for work because she can't afford after-school care for her children.
With support from Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, unemployment benefits and her children's father, Montiel has maintained her apartment and kept up with her bills. But family members have had to help her out with back-to-school items for her children.
"I wish I could afford more stuff for the children," Montiel said. "But I have to ask for help since I'm in a really tight situation. Everybody gets accustomed to the good life, but I think it's just a matter of time before things get back to normal. I know things will get better."
About 43 percent of all working women earn half or more of their family's income, said Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, a national women's advocacy group based in Chicago. And since many women work part-time, seasonally and in low-wage, high-turnover jobs, they often have a harder time qualifying for unemployment benefits, Ladky said.
During recessions prior to 2001, stay-at-home moms and other women family members would often get jobs when men were laid off.
However, as more women entered the work force — and into male-dominated industries such as manufacturing — they became much more vulnerable to layoffs, job displacements, wage cuts and other vagaries of economic downturns.
In fact, during the 2001 recession, women lost a larger share of jobs than men in manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities, according to the joint committee study.
"This year's job losses — compounded by soaring prices for food, energy, child care and health care — mean that women are even more at risk," said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center.
After being laid off in January, Terri Pittman of Greenville, Miss., expects her unemployment benefits to expire at the end of the month. Pittman, a 44-year-old former customer-service specialist at a furniture manufacturing plant, has struggled to find work in the smaller towns surrounding Greenville. Her 6-year-old daughter has begun to see her mother's financial strain.
"It has been a dramatic change not having the income to live the life we were accustomed to," Pittman said. "How do you tell a 6-year-old, 'baby, we've got to wait because we can't afford it?' Children pay attention to things like that. Sometimes she'll say, 'Ma, I know we don't have any money right now so we don't have to get this or that.' Kids are very aware."
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