Building a Better Post-COVID Future for Women in New Orleans
The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on women’s employment across the nation, and perhaps nowhere more than the city of New Orleans, a metropolitan area heavily dependent on hospitality and tourism dollars that have all but vanished during the past year. A new study by Chandra Childers, a Study Director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, looks at the potential opportunities for women who have lost jobs during the pandemic to find new opportunities in skilled trade and technical jobs. Childers specializes in research on employment, earnings, the future of work, and women and girls of color. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us how this work in New Orleans came about
We have a history of work in New Orleans since directly following Hurricane Katrina and we are specifically interested in increasing the representation of Black, Hispanic and other women of color in the trades. In New Orleans you’ve got a large number of women of color, of Black women in particular, who fall below the poverty level, who are dependent on employment in hospitality, leisure and other low-wage occupations that don’t provide benefits. Almost 90 percent of them are the breadwinner within their homes. So, it’s a really good place to get started focusing on increasing their access to some of the better paying jobs in the trades. One of our funders is the Kellogg Foundation and New Orleans is one of the areas they focus on in their work as well. There was all of this hope and optimism about what was going to happen after the rebuilding, after Katrina and we just haven’t seen the progress that some of the most optimistic among us would have liked to see.
Before getting more on the specifics of your study, let’s set the stage for the pandemic’s impact on New Orleans, particularly given the city’s reliance on the hospitality industry.
We started with what was happening even before the pandemic hit, looking at job losses, the latest data showed there were 57,000 job losses since last March for the metro area. That was a huge loss and the bulk of that, 40 percent of those jobs, were in leisure and hospitality. We know that those are jobs that are filled primarily by Black workers, but Black women in particular. These are jobs that have low wages, many don’t provide benefits, many don’t provide health insurance, and many of them don’t provide pensions or any retirement benefits. In the data we saw for 2019, before the pandemic, we saw an unemployment rate of almost 10 percent for women of color in the New Orleans area. And again, for over 80 percent of households with children in New Orleans, women are a breadwinner or co-breadwinner. And that’s almost 90 percent for Black women. In addition, you have the uncertainty about when the jobs will return, if they will return. We know that when they do return, these jobs will still be low-wage jobs that pay too little for people to support a family on.
And some of those women are going to have difficulty, even if they do return to work, with kids who may not be going physically to school and child care issues.
That’s definitely an issue, but also with elder care which is something that a lot of people often overlook. Many of these women need assistance with care for their children as well as their parents or others with disabilities. Those are all things that we’ve seen take a real toll on women’s ability to participate in the labor market.
And far as moving some of these women into the trades, there are jobs that are open in that sector in New Orleans, correct?
Yes. The other thing that the data showed is while there were some job losses in areas like construction, the job losses were a lot lower. In the construction trades, there was the loss of 3,000 jobs but about 16,000 in some of the food service jobs. And the job losses in food services and hospitality will be much more affected by how long the recession goes on, how long until we can get the virus under control. People just aren’t traveling – they just aren’t going there. Whereas with construction, they’re up and they’re back running.
We did interviews with a lot of stakeholders, including employers and government officials. Take Boeing for example; they are really needing a labor force with the skills they need and they have launched a partnership with Nunez Community College so that they can begin to fill that pipeline. NASA has a plant there; that’s something that’s not going to be impacted by the pandemic. We do expect pandemic infrastructure spending and that’s also going to lead to job growth. The port of New Orleans, which is one of the largest in the country, is already set for expansion and that’s going to create jobs. There are a number of different factors coming together to point to growth in those areas. And as one of the stakeholders we spoke to pointed out, what employers are doing is that they’re pulling from areas around New Orleans, rather than directly from the city, in an effort to meet their labor needs. But the growth is going to demand more workers than they can find in adjoining areas, which offers an opportunity to go in and train workers within New Orleans and get them ready to apply for those positions. By focusing in on Black women in particular, you’re not only meeting the needs of employers but you’re allowing these women to earn a family wage and contribute to the tax base as well.
What would be the average increase in wages for someone moving from the hospitality sector into one of these trade positions?
For waiters and waitresses, for example, the median earnings were $9.14 an hour, whereas for a construction laborer – not even a skilled laborer – it was $15.81 an hour. You’ve got a 50 percent increase in wages for workers in a position that doesn’t require a high school diploma.
Another example we pulled focused on more skilled workers. Middle school teachers in the New Orleans area earn $24 an hour and plumbers, pipe fitters and steam fitters, which are skilled positions, earn $24.87 an hour. They actually make about the same as a middle school teacher. But, to become a middle school teacher requires at least a four-year college degree and many have a master’s degree, which means paying for school, forgoing the labor market and often ending up with large amounts of student debt. For many of the skilled trade positions, like plumbers, if you go through an apprenticeship you’re paid on the job from day one. You’re still able to take care of your family while you’re building your skills.
And you’re getting benefits, that while not perhaps comparable to being a middle school teacher, are a lot better than that being a waiter or waitress, where there are essentially no benefits.
Yes. You’re getting the skills while you’re on the job and for some residents in the area, the idea of going to college may just be beyond their grasp. Being able to go into a job and build those skills on the job, that’s something that they can grasp. That’s something that is doable and possible.
I know you have a number of recommendations in the report. What are some of the top policy changes that you’d like to see?
We didn’t really want to do a lot on recommendations because we think that should come from the people who live there. We have an upcoming meeting to begin to form a working group with the people of New Orleans so they can take the lead on this.
But one of the things that we thought would be really helpful was getting girls and young women prepared and trained for some of these positions while they are still in high school, at the point that they are thinking about their futures. One of the things we’ve seen, not just in this project but in other projects, is that people will graduate high school, get a college degree and still find themselves moving into the construction trade. We’ve talked to a number of women in the construction trades who have a college degree and ended up going that route. So, by providing those opportunities for them when they’re beginning to map out their career, it may move them in that direction without going into debt for a four-year degree.
The second recommendation is setting diversity goals, for racial and ethnic and gender diversity, for anyone who’s getting public funding for their project and enforcing those goals. You want to increase the supply of women who can fill these kinds of positions but also provide encouragement for employers.
The third biggest area I would point out is making sure women have the support and resources that they need. Child care, for example – construction sites don’t run on the same schedule as other jobs, so you need access to affordable child care. Transportation, work clothes . . . they are going to need support if they are going to be successful.
I know you’re focused locally, but given that we have a new administration, are there any changes nationally that you would be looking for? One issue we focused on recently was allowing Pell Grants to be used to pay for non-four-year community college training and apprenticeships.
I definitely, definitely agree with that. Partnerships like the one I mentioned between Boeing and Nunez Community College are so important. Because they’re working with the industry that will be employing them, the workers are assured of getting the skills that they need and are not wasting their time. Anything that encourages apprenticeships is going to be really important. And infrastructure spending can increase opportunities for apprenticeships.