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During the coronavirus crisis, equal pay is more important than ever

March 31, 2020, 11:15 AM UTC

Every spring, the United States observes Equal Pay Day, the date that marks the number of extra months into the new year that women must work in order to earn what men brought in the previous year. Amid the global coronavirus and economic crisis, it could be easy for 2020’s marker of the gender pay gap to fall by the wayside. But, experts argue, that would be a mistake.

“The pay gap is less money women have in their pockets for basic necessities and less in savings to ride out a crisis like this,” says Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

This year’s Equal Pay Day is March 31, meaning that women as an aggregate group earned 81.6 cents on men’s dollar, working all of 2019 and until this point in 2020 to earn what men did last year. The date averages all pay gap data and does not account for significant differences in the racial wage gap.

Advocates are viewing this year’s date through the lens of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. “With tens of thousands of people already losing jobs, a woman’s income is extremely critical to a family’s economic security,” says Kim Churches, CEO of the American Association of University Women.

In industries shedding jobs right now, female workers are significantly impacted, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Women hold 70% of restaurant server positions, generally earning 79% of what men do. Women make up 77% of clothing retail workers and, before their stores closed, earned 89% of what men did.

Most of the frontline workers during this crisis also face a wage gap. Women hold 66% of grocery store jobs and make 89% of what men do in the same positions. Even in nursing, where women represent 88% of the workforce, they earn 92% of what their male colleagues do.

These women are often primary or dual breadwinners, making lost wages especially significant to their families during an economic downturn.

The economic crisis is already starting to affect lawmakers’ approach to the gender wage gap. The U.K. last week suspended its required reporting of gender pay gap data, citing an unfair burden on companies facing unprecedented circumstances.

And while the current circumstances are certainly unprecedented, the decades-long failure to close the gender wage gap only worsens the crisis’s effect on women and their families. “It provides a real opportunity to think about the loss of earnings—as much as $1 million—for women over their lifetimes,” Mason says.

More on the most powerful women in business from Fortune:

How working parents are navigating childcare during the coronavirus pandemic
—95% of Americans support paid sick leave for coronavirus victims
Female founders race to respond to the coronavirus pandemic
—What Helena Foulkes learned about retail and leadership as CEO of HBC
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: The double burdens that hold women back

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