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The current recession is entering its second year and looks quite likely to become the worst recession in terms of job losses of any since the Great Depression. Since this recession officially began in December 2007, employers have shed 2.6 million employees—a decline of 1.9 percent—with most of that occurring in the last four months of 2008. Not all groups, however, have been affected equally: Over the first year of this recession, job losses and unemployment have spiked higher for male workers than their female counterparts.
This recession began with the bursting of the housing bubble, which has led to sharp job losses in male-dominated industries, especially construction, through 2008. As a result, the share of men in the United States with a job is at its lowest point ever, 69.7 percent. Over the past year, however, women’s jobs have been sustained by hiring in the government and health care sectors. As a result, since the recession officially began adult women’s unemployment has risen by 1.6 percentage points, to 5.9 percent in December 2008, from 4.3 percent a year earlier, while adult men’s unemployment has risen by 2.8 percentage points, to 7.2 percent from 4.4 percent over the same period. There has been only one other time since 1949 that men’s unemployment has been this much higher than women’s, in 1983, at the height of the high unemployment of the early 1980s recession.
With so many men out of work, it is clear that more families are relying on women workers to make ends meet. As women increasingly take on the role of breadwinner, ensuring that they get a fair wage is taking on more urgency than ever before. Nearly half a century after passage of the Equal Pay Act, women continue to earn less than men, even if they have similar educational levels and work in similar kinds of jobs as their male co-workers. Among full-time, full-year workers, women earn only 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act—legislation that will ensure equal pay for equal work—and is now waiting for action from the Senate. This legislation could not be more timely and more important to the millions of families relying on women’s wages.
There are no signs that the worst of the labor market turmoil is behind us. As of December 2008, the decline in employment as a share of peak employment is larger in the current recession than at this point during all of the recessions in recent memory. To help families make ends meet through this recession, policymakers need to focus on a recovery and reinvestment package that gets people back to work, but they also need to remember that those workers still employed must be paid a fair day’s wage. In the pages that follow, this report will detail the gender trends that underlie the current recession, and then briefly examine the options male and female unemployed workers have to reenter the workforce amid this increasingly brutal economic downturn. Our analysis underscores the importance of equal pay for equal work in this recession.
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