How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America

“This one is helping watch this one’s child while she works the night shift, then she watches hers for the 7-3 shift,” said Keshia Williams, 44, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Scranton, Pa., where the staff members — “99.9 percent of them” women — are trying to cover an ever-growing list of rotations left unfilled by infected or quarantined co-workers.

“Now we are apparently essential,” Ms. Williams said dryly, before describing the critical lack of protective gear where she works. Some N95 masks recently arrived, but she is limited to one a week, an uneasy regimen given that she spends each morning screening residents for the virus. Still, dealing with people face to face is what drew her to her job in the first place. The pandemic has not changed that.

That millions of care workers are “driven by incentives other than purely economic incentives” is in part why this work has traditionally been so undervalued, said Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago.

It is a type of work that does not produce an object that can be traded or sold, he said; it is simply work that has to be done. “There is a whole system in place to make us not think of this as critical infrastructure,” he said.

Until that system gets a shock.

“I didn’t sign up for a pandemic,” said Andrea Lindley, 34, an I.C.U. nurse at a Philadelphia hospital where scores of coronavirus patients have been admitted. “But I am not going to walk away when people need me.”

Growing up, she wanted to become a doctor, watching her mother come back exhausted and back-sore from long hours as a licensed practical nurse. Health care is harder physical work than people realize — workers in health care and social assistance suffer nonfatal injuries on the job at a rate higher than workers in construction or manufacturing. Ms. Lindley’s mother described the job to her this way: “You work too hard and you don’t get paid enough.”

But Ms. Lindley was attracted to the personal, hands-on practice of nursing. “We are in the rooms way more than the doctors,” she said. It is what she still loves about the job. These days, with her husband unable to find carpentry work and her daughter recovering from leukemia, it is also what makes the job so dangerous.

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