By: Bob Sechler
If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic that roiled labor markets last year, there would be plenty to cheer
about in new government statistics pointing to a narrowing of genderbased pay disparities in Texas.
Women in the state who worked full-time in 2020 earned a median of 87 cents for every dollar earned by
their male counterparts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — the highest figure in more than two decades that the data have been tracked and a sizable increase from about 81 cents in 2019. But instead of signaling progress toward bridging the pay gap, the rise appears to reflect nearly the opposite — a disproportionately negative impact on women last year as the pandemic triggered widespread layoffs and forced some people to leave the workforce to care for children or other family members.
That’s because the latest numbers were released with a big caveat. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the median earnings distribution shifted upward overall because of “large declines in employment in 2020 (as a result of
the pandemic), particularly among low-wage workers” who bore the brunt of job losses.
With women overrepresented in many relatively low-paying sectors — including food service, the hotel industry
and education — the upshot is that the official median earnings figure for female workers was artificially elevated
because those able to keep their jobs tilted toward the highest earners, women’s advocates say.
“All the anecdotal evidence as well as pieces of data that we have been able to find have shown that jobs that women
hold have been hardest hit by COVID,” said Dena Jackson, chief operating officer of the Texas Women’s Foundation.
Jackson, whose Dallas-based organization aims to advance economic security and leadership roles for women, said Hispanic women illustrate the trend because they historically have filled jobs in Texas that are among the
lowest paid and likely were eliminated at the highest rate amid the pandemic. The women who held those jobs “are
not reflected in the data — they have become invisible,” she said. Underlying wage figures reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics lend credence to the conclusion, showing an unusually large upward shift in pay for women workers in the state last year.
Texas women who worked full-time in 2020 earned a weekly median of $875 — up more than 13% from $772 in 2019, according to the figures. Their male counterparts earned a weekly median of $1,006, up about 5.5% from $954 in 2019.
Julie Percival, the bureau’s regional economist, said the pandemic clearly skewed the data. Among other disclaimers accompanying the release of the 2020 numbers, the federal agency said that “comparisons with data on earnings for earlier years should be interpreted with caution” as a result of the turmoil caused by the pandemic, particularly when it comes to women workers.
“In a non-pandemic year, I would be really excited” to report what at first blush looks like a significant narrowing
of the gender-based wage gap, Percival said. “But the pandemic is not something that we can ignore” and likely hurt
women workers inordinately because of their overrepresentation in low-wage sectors that suffered the biggest downturns in employment, she said.
More than 1 million Texans lost jobs seemingly overnight and the state’s unemployment rate nearly quadrupled
when the coronavirus pandemic first slammed the economy early last year. The statewide unemployment rate
soared to 12.9% on a seasonally adjusted basis in April 2020 — from about 3.5% previously — amid widespread fears
about the pandemic and temporary government-mandated shutdowns of businesses deemed nonessential.
Many of the job losses were concentrated in service and hospitality-related sectors that rely on face-to-face interactions and can’t be done remotely. Those jobs also have been among the slowest to come back as the economy recovers. “Who can’t work from home? People in low-paying and in large part care-giving jobs” that have been disproportionately held by women, said Francesca Rattray, chief executive of the YWCA of San Antonio and a member of the San Antonio Women’s Chamber of Commerce. With many of those jobs eliminated in 2020 — and thus the wages earned by the workers who once held them not part of the data — Rattray called the latest median pay figures “misleading and dangerous” because they provide a false sense that substantial progress has
been made in narrowing gender-based disparities.
“On the face of it, (the new numbers) do look like good news,” she said. “But they’re calculating that number on a
smaller and non-representative workforce.” The pay disparity between female and male workers in Texas has been relatively consistent in recent years before shrinking in the 2020 data, with women’s earnings fluctuating between about 79 cents and about 82 cents for every dollar earned by men from 2015 to 2019.
For the United States overall, median wages for women have ranged from 81 to 82 cents over that five-year period for every dollar earned by men.
The U.S. pay gap for women didn’t narrow nearly as much last year as it did in Texas, according to the new data from
the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing only slight improvement to 82.3 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2020. The reasons for the discrepancy are unclear. Observers cited a number of possibilities, however, including different mixes of industries in Texas impacted unequally by the pandemic, as well as the potential that women in Texas suffered inordinately because they held higher proportions of low-wage jobs and had less access to child care.