Lightfoot vows to expand paid parental leave for city workers, conduct ‘pay equity’ audit

Chicago’s version of the “she-cession” was evident in the disproportionate job losses: there were 10,957 fewer men in the 2020 workforce compared to the year before the pandemic — but there were 36,092 fewer women.

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Chicago skyline as seen from Soldier Field.

Women were hit harder economically than men by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed Wednesday to expand paid parental leave for city employees, conduct a continuous “pay equity audit” and challenge the private sector to do the same.

The goal, the mayor said, is to remedy a pandemic-driven “she-cession” that’s had a disproportionate impact on women of color.

Last year, some of Chicago’s most influential Black women kicked off Mother’s Day weekend by resolving to remove barriers made worse by the pandemic — barriers in education, health care and economic opportunity that are holding back the next generation of Black women and girls.

At the time, Lightfoot called it “the next phase of what I hope is the feminist revolution.”

Now, the mayor is putting some meat on the bone of that “revolution.”

The mayor’s Women’s Advisory Council joined Women Employed, the Civic Consulting Alliance and World Business Chicago in releasing a report titled, “Creating a More Equitable Recovery: Addressing Economic Barriers COVID-19 Exacerbated for Women in Chicago.”

The report states COVID-19 was “not the cause” of the pandemic’s “negative economic impacts” on women of color. It did, however, expose “pain points in the economy and social safety net systems” that made the situation infinitely worse.

In 2020, the beginning of the pandemic, Chicago women were “more likely to be single - head of household,” but “less likely to be working” because the jobs they held before the unprecedented economic shutdown were in industries most negatively impacted by the pandemic, including health care, food service, hospitality and education.

Chicago’s version of the “she-cession” was evident in the disproportionate job losses between the sexes: 10,957 fewer men in the 2020 workforce compared to the year before the pandemic; 36,092 fewer women.

Those women fortunate enough to keep their jobs were “over-represented in low-quality, low-wage jobs with fewer benefits,” the report states. Women were also overburdened by the “lack of care infrastructure and persistent occupational segregation,” the report states.

The disparate impact the pandemic has had on women, compared to men, has been talked about since COVID-19’s onset, giving birth to the term, “she-cession.”

But Lightfoot promised to use the Chicago report to justify an expansion of paid parental leave for city employees in the 2023 budget that will serve as her re-election platform.

She called it “critical to ensure the recruitment and retention of women and all parents” in the city’s workforce.

To guarantee women working for city government earn the same pay for the same work as men, Lightfoot called for a “re-occurring pay equity” audit in city departments and agencies of local government she controls and “challenged” the private sector to “join her” in leveling the playing field.

“Women and particularly women of color have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic while being paid less than men simply because of their gender,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release accompanying the report.

“This report demonstrates that there is more work to do to address inequities in our economy. I look forward to working with the Women’s Advisory Council and many partners who fight for the resources needed to reach financial security for all.”

Cherita Ellens, president and CEO of Women Employed, said the report merely confirms “what we already know.”

“Working women — and especially Black and Brown women — were already economically vulnerable before COVID-19 and that the pandemic has grown and exacerbated existing economic divides,” Ellens said.

“To ensure women can emerge from the ‘she-cession’ strong and build the financial security they need to prosper, we must pull multiple levers, including advancing legislation and policy, changing employer practices and creating pathways to better careers that pay living wages. Women Employed is thrilled that the city has made this work a priority.”

Expanded paid parental leave would only build on the mayor’s labor record.

Since taking office, Lightfoot has already convinced the City Council to raise the city’s minimum hourly wage to $15, approve a predictable scheduling ordinance and impose a host of worker protections during the pandemic.

And thanks to an ordinance championed by Lightfoot, thousands of contract employees at O’Hare and Midway airports will see their hourly wages rise to $17 on Friday. It will go to $18 a year later, and increase by the consumer price index every year after that.

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