Alarming Stat About Women Seeking Unemployment Was Likely Wrong | Off Message

Alarming Stat About Women Seeking Unemployment Was Likely Wrong


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It was a startling statistic: Of the people who applied for regular unemployment in the state last fall, 73 percent were women, the Vermont legislature's Joint Fiscal Office said. Vermont’s gender inequity appeared to be an outlier. Around much of the country, men and women had applied for unemployment last fall at about the same rate.

But it looks like the number, which was widely quoted in January, was inaccurate, said Joyce Manchester, a senior analyst at the JFO, and Mat Barewicz, an economist at the state Department of Labor. It probably overstates the discrepancy.

The figure of 73 percent came from the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office and the state Department of Labor, using data from the U.S. Department of Labor. It was shared with lawmakers and by advocates for women. It prompted conversations about how to help women return to the workforce.

Manchester said last week she had backed away from using the number.

“I have been spreading the word that we may have been misled by data that somehow isn’t quite right,” said Manchester, who had cautioned in January that she needed to do more analysis on the data she was using. “There may be something funky in the data set.”

Barewicz said his division is analyzing the unemployment claims data collected last year to produce a report that will give policymakers a clearer idea of how the pandemic affected Vermonters. Claims soared during the pandemic from an average of 6,000 a week to nearly 100,000 at the peak of the downturn.

The 73 percent figure, reported in Seven Days and elsewhere, was based on a week’s snapshot of data and doesn’t tell the whole picture, said Barewicz. Officials used a week’s data to estimate a quarterly figure, he said. He said further study might show that the share of men and women who collected unemployment benefits in 2020 was about equal. Women make up about 50.6 percent of Vermonters, according to 2019 Census data.

Barewicz noted the number of job losses doesn’t necessarily match the number of claimants. Not everybody is eligible for or chooses to claim unemployment benefits.

“Whether we’re talking 60-40 or 55-45, I don’t think that’s the important part,” Barewicz said. “As it relates to that 73 percent number that’s gotten legs and ran off on its own, it seems like that has gotten a lot of traction and play. But that’s one week’s snapshot.”

The important thing, he said, is that research shows women have suffered more in the recession that accompanied the pandemic. National DOL data shows about 57 percent of the job loss hit women, and 43 percent hit men, he said.

That’s a widely held view. The Vermont Commission on Women’s COVID-19 dashboard says women are more vulnerable to an economic hit from the pandemic because they make up 81 percent of Vermont’s tipped wage earners — the highest rate in the country. So their work was disrupted more by pandemic-related closures.

The commission also says women in Vermont are more likely than men to be in part-time positions and make up a disproportionate share of the people earning less than $11 an hour, making them less likely to qualify for benefits like paid leave or unemployment insurance.

Research on the pandemic’s economic impact is incomplete, and there are plenty of conflicting conclusions. The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research said in a December report that, in fact, Vermont does stand out for its share of women on unemployment, at 66.7 percent of claimants, or two out of three. The share in most states is around 55 percent, the report said.