Working women are more vulnerable to layoffs.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Last week, the Federal Reserve extended a $30 billion line of credit to save investment bank Bear Stearns from bankruptcy and allow JP Morgan Chase, another financial giant, to scoop it up at a rock-bottom price.

Women’s financial advocates say fair enough. But they are using last Sunday’s startling $2 per share purchase, backed by the Fed, to spotlight what they see as the moral hazard of not doing more to keep middle- and low-income people–among whom women predominate–financially stable as well.

"When the economy gets a cold, women get pneumonia," said Michele Leber, chair of the Washington-based National Committee on Pay Equity, which is pushing legislation to make it easier to sue for wage discrimination.

The Fed is a quasi-public institution that runs on its own earnings and operates independently of the government, so the move stopped short of a bailout paid by U.S. taxpayers.

Regulators, Wall Street observers and media pundits expressed concern after the sale was announced about the moral hazard of the Fed helping the private, profit-oriented banking system as well as about the strong likelihood that taxpayers will be drawn into minimizing the damage rippling out from Wall Street.

These events make it all the more urgent that the current economic downturn’s effects on women should also be addressed by Washington, advocates argued. For example, Cindy Hounsell, president of the Washington-based Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, said that while women’s groups often coordinate to advocate for specific policies, an entire policy package to address women’s economic disparities is needed.

"We need to forge an agenda together on these issues," she said. "There’s all these tax breaks that women aren’t included on."

2 Million Face Foreclosure Risk

Among the 2 million Americans now at high risk of losing their homes as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, more women than men appear to be in the line of fire, according to Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy at the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.

In a December 2006 report he and a co-author found that 32 percent of female borrowers–compared to 24 percent of males–received sub-prime mortgages, which are now beginning to require far higher monthly payments because of their "balloon" structures.

"The inequity of the fact that the government rallies to prop a troubled financial institution at the same time as it is resisting providing support needed for hundreds of thousands of homeowners to avoid losing their homes is striking," he said.

Last week, Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd unveiled a plan to offer distressed homeowners an opportunity to refinance their mortgages with Federal Housing Administration-backed loans that offer repayments adjusted to what each homeowner can afford. In exchange, borrowers would share their home equity and future appreciation with the government.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the Washington-based National Women’s Law Center, said Dodd’s plan presents a "good balanced approach" to averting foreclosures, but this alone will not solve women’s economic woes.

Last month the United States lost 63,000 jobs, marking the second consecutive month of declines, according to the Labor Department. The government often revises these initial numbers, but Vicky Lovell, director of employment and work-life programs at the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, expects the trend to continue over the short term. She said the numbers point to a serious national problem of shedding jobs at a time when a growing labor force is creating more need for them.

Women Hit Harder By Layoffs

Jobless and work-tenure statistics for men and women are nearly the same. Both groups’ unemployment rate hovers just above 4 percent while 22 percent of both men and women over the age of 20 have held their current jobs for less than a year, according to the Labor Department.

 Working women are more vulnerable to layoffs.

But women’s higher percentage of lower-wage and part-time jobs makes them more vulnerable in the face of layoffs.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2006 U.S. women earned 76.9 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women are 59 percent of low-wage workers, making it harder for them to meet earning requirements for unemployment insurance, which vary by state.

Women are also 67 percent of part-time workers, which means that in many states they are ineligible for jobless benefits.

One proposal in committee in both the House and Senate, the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act, would extend unemployment benefits to dislocated workers who enroll in state-approved training programs and make it easer for women to qualify for unemployment insurance by extending eligibility to individuals who are only available for part-time work or who leave their jobs for compelling family reasons.

Deborah Frett, CEO of Washington-based Business and Professional Women/USA, said that in tighter labor markets employers are less likely to offer the flexible work-life arrangements that women need to care for their families. Over 70 percent of mothers were in the labor force in 2006, according to the group.

"Things weren’t really all that great for women when the economy was going well," Frett said. "Any challenges the economy faces will impact women all the more so."

Losing Rank on Gender Index

Frett said there is also a tendency not to make progress on pay equity during weaker economies. Employment disparities between the sexes were a major factor in the U.S. ranking’s eight-rung slip on the most recent Geneva-based World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, from 23 to 31 among 128 nations.

As Americans face the annual April 15 deadline for paying their income taxes, advocacy groups said recent tax policies have done little to ease women’s economic burdens.

Campbell, of the National Women’s Law Center, said President Bush’s income tax cuts of 2001 and 2003–which reduced taxes on income from wealth, such as dividends and capital gains–have not favored women as a whole.

"That’s not where women are," Campbell said. She said the state- and federal-budget revenue squeeze from the tax cuts means less support for programs women care about.

Campbell predicted that as most states balance their budgets before July 1, they will consider cutting funds for child care, child-support enforcement and Medicaid, the health program for low-income people.

In the economic stimulus package that the president signed into law in February, which will give Americans cash rebates, Campbell favored the inclusion of an extension of unemployment benefits, additional funds for food stamps, and grants for states, which are required to balance their budgets.

Kara Alaimo is a New York-based writer.

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Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].