Deenean Wilson-Henderson has spent most of her career working in management positions in Memphis-area nonprofits, but in early September she got a call at home from her boss: her position was eliminated. There was not enough work, she was told. 

It was a blow, but not a complete shock. Wilson-Henderson, 55, described her work environment as toxic long before COVID-19. 

“I was the only African-American in full-time management,” she said. “All the people who looked like me — the majority worked in housekeeping and maintenance.”

While work had slowed down at the nonprofit early in the pandemic, it had started to pick back up when Wilson-Henderson learned she was suddenly unemployed. The pandemic, Wilson-Henderson believes, has been an opportunity for employers “to mask and cover their true intentions.”

The latest data shows that while U.S. unemployment rates remained steady at about 6.7% in December, women of color continued to lose jobs at higher rates. 

White men, white women and Black men all registered job gains in late 2020. Yet 82,000 Black women and 31,000 Hispanic women lost jobs across the country in December, according to the most recent U.S. Census household pulse survey.

Elizabeth Gedmark, A Better Balance (Photo: Twitter)
Elizabeth Gedmark, A Better Balance (Photo: Twitter)

“That’s not a surprise,” said Elizabeth Gedmark, who leads the Nashville office of A Better Balance, a national advocacy organization for workers who are caretakers of children, parents or fall ill themselves. “They are more likely to be in the types of jobs that don’t have benefits or they’re just seen as expendable.”

The loss of employment for working women of color extend across job sectors, impacting women at all points along the earnings spectrum. 

Ernestine Bowdry, her wife, Sherita Lewis, and three of their children were living out of their cars in Los Angeles before deciding to move to Nashville for better opportunities last year. They moved in with Lewis’ mom. Bowdry and Lewis, who are both Black, had backgrounds working in construction before jobs had dried up and high California housing costs forced them into homelessness.  

After six months of unemployment in Nashville, Bowdry, 34, landed a job at UPS, while Lewis, 42, got work as a cashier at Mapco. 

The job market is better in Tennessee than California and housing costs are more affordable — the family has since moved into their own home, Bowdry said.

Yet even though they have mostly held onto jobs in Nashville — Bowdry was sidelined for several months after getting injured on the job at UPS, relying on workers’ compensation payments of just $149 a week — the couple are waiting out the pandemic to pursue their long term plans of opening their own construction business.

Many Black women don’t qualify for federal COVID-19 relief aid because they lost jobs that they could not document, working in a sub-sector of the gig economy where jobs pay cash and transactions are informal.

The couple both enrolled in the Construction and Weatherization Training Program offered by Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, which offers certificated training in construction and workplace safety. They are steering spare cash towards creating business cards, making fliers and filing business legal documents while tag-teaming childcare and online schooling of their children — ages 13, 11 and 11 — between Bowdry’s night shift and Lewis’ day shift.

“It’s been rough, but we keep putting it together and making it work,” Bowdry said. As African-Americans and  lesbians, Bowdry and Lewis said they have long encountered negative assumptions working in construction jobs in the past. The pandemic hasn’t made things better, Bowdry said.

At Neighborhood Christian Centers in Memphis, a nonprofit whose clients reflect the demographics of the majority-Black city, staff are seeing a big influx of first-timers — predominantly Black women — who are seeking financial and food assistance after losing jobs.

“What we were dealing with before COVID were people who were under-resourced, but we have a whole lot of people who have never had to walk into a place like ours,” said Ephie Johnson, president and CEO.

New clients — for whom the agency has been steering federal COVID-19 relief dollars for rent, mortgage, utilities and other needs — include women who have lost $50,000 per year jobs or fallen sick, missing weeks of work that have put them in financial bind to keep up with housing, car and utility payments, she said.

One challenge for Johnson’s group: roughly one in ten who approach the agency seeking help don’t qualify for federal COVID-19 relief aid because they lost jobs that they could not document, working in a sub-sector of the gig economy where jobs pay cash and transactions are informal. African-American women make up a large part of that hidden economy in Memphis, Johnson said.

“They were doing hustles,” she said. “Home care, child care…they don’t have a way of documenting their income and the CARES Act requires proof.”

At Goodwill Industries in Nashville, which provides job training and placement, the number of people served is actually down this year over 2019, said Matt Gloster, vice president of mission advancement. Roughly two-thirds of the agency’s clients are “non-Caucasion” and half are women.Goodwill Industries logo

“You have to take into account that in 2020 fewer people were seeking employment because businesses were shut down and no jobs were available,” he said. “A significant portion received state and enhanced federal unemployment benefits. A large number of people never made $800 a week.”

That temporary infusion of unemployment benefits and other federal aid may have masked a need for jobs that looms as those benefits end.

For Wilson-Henderson, the enforced joblessness has had an up-side. She enrolled in classes at the University of Memphis last January and has been able to focus on school while receiving unemployment benefits and relying on savings. The Neighborhood Christian Center, a nonprofit she once partnered with as a professional who placed volunteers, provided aid with her mortgage payments early in her unemployment when she was struggling to pay bills before unemployment checks began arriving.

Her job search is ongoing. She said she turned down one offer at a nonprofit doing volunteer management because the salary was entry level, but has several more prospects. When she does return to work, she wants an environment in which she is treated as a respected professional.

“It’s more important for me to find a position that’s right for me,” she said. “It’s been hard but it’s been a relief to be out of that work environment, too. My job now is to remain hopeful.”