How Natural Disasters Can Make The Gender Pay Gap Worse

Damage estimates for Hurricane Sandy have crept up to about $50 billion, while economists are estimating that the storm could knock more than half a percentage point off of fourth-quarter economic growth. But other economic effects could also come to light.

As Sheila Bapat at RH Reality Check noted, research indicates that after Hurricane Katrina, women’s employment fell in New Orleans while the wage gap widened:

Hurricane Katrina is believed by some to have hurt New Orleans women’s economic status in the years that followed — specifically women’s workforce participation and the gender gap in wages. Tulane University’s Newcomb College Center for Research on Women published a report in December 2008 that primarily evaluates United States Census Bureau data from the two years following Katrina, showing that post-Katrina labor force participation rates dropped more for women than it did for men (-6.6 percent for females; -3.8 percent for males in 2007).

And a year after Hurricane Katrina, the average earnings of women of color declined as well. The Tulane report notes that “the median earnings of White, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino men increased. In contrast, only the average earnings of White women showed a slight increase; the median earnings of Black/ African American women and Hispanic/Latinas fell.”

The Tulane report explains that barriers to women’s employment—including lack of schools, childcare facilities, housing and public transportation—magnified in post-storm New Orleans, and may have resulted in drops in both workforce participation and wages.

According to the Tulane report, labor shortages in the city should have created favorable wage conditions. However, women still lost ground:

Labor shortages in New Orleans following Katrina created a favorable bargaining position for workers to negotiate higher wages. However, these higher wages have not accrued to women workers whose wages on average increased by just 3.7 percent between 2005 and 2007. An inflation rate of 6.1 percent in the same time period basically eliminated any possible gain.10 Moreover, while the median earnings for all women increased slightly, the average earnings for White women dropped 5.2 percent, from $39,988 in 2005 to $37,916 in 2007, while the median earnings of Black/African American women dropped 3.3 percent, from $24,037 in 2005 to $23,240 in 2007.

Obviously, Hurricane Sandy was no Katrina. But populations that are already economically disadvantaged are more likely to lose ground due to a hurricane or other natural disaster, and Tulane’s report shows that women struggling to close the pay gap may be no exception.