Posted on September 1, 2020 by Amanda Cerreto

This article originally appeared in San Antonio Magazine by Kathleen Perry.

When Lily Casura [doctoral student in applied demography at UTSA] started looking at national data concerning frontline workers, it was clear the burden of COVID-19 was falling unevenly on people of color, particularly women. And while San Antonio-specific data hadn't been collected, Casura knew from the work she and Rogelio Sáenz, Ph.D., did on the 2019 "Status of Women in San Antonio" report that a large percentage of low-earning hospitality workers in the city meant the pandemic was likely having an even greater impact locally. "What are we doing to help them?" asks Casura, who uses her master's in social work to conduct research on women's and veterans' issues. “I doubt it's a whole lot because we've likely never really stopped to think about how many there are.”

Originally a journalist, Casura says it was her interest in veterans issues like PTSD that led her back to graduate school. She had the goal of helping people work through trauma and found during various research projects that while one-on-one client interaction was vital, her passion lay elsewhere, with data and survey work that could help to drive broader change, whether in domestic violence services or policy around wage equity. “I love to look at a topic overall and the research and have that influence policy.” Casura says. “You can help more people at once.” In the coming months, she'll begin working with the University of Texas at San Antonio on a COVID-19-related community survey on domestic violence.

You've pointed to national data that shows women and persons of color are being impacted unequally by COVID-19. What does that mean for San Antonio?

Part of the takeaway for me from “The Status of Women” (2019 report) was that when we compared ourselves to the other three big cities in Texas, we were the worst, whether it was domestic violence, income, education attainment, whatever it was. Part of that we can understand because there are more higher earning opportunities in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Here we're still overly concentrated in hospitality and service. At UTSA, when we looked at the national data on frontline workers (people in hospitality, health care and other essential jobs), it was depressing to realize that if you're a person of color, especially if you're a woman, you're more likely to be earning less than $30,000 annually. The median hourly wage for the 54 percent of frontline workers who make less than $30,000 is about $10 an hour. Plus, you're more likely to be uninsured. Women in that group are likely to have an even lower median income than men, with Hispanic women in frontline jobs reporting a median income of less than $20,000. I wish we could have localized that data, but we know that a lot of those lower-paying frontline jobs exist in San Antonio.

What should be done with that knowledge?

In San Antonio's last Comprehensive Community Needs Assessment, which surveys low income residents and nonprofits every three years, one of the conclusions was that people don't know what services are out there. So, we need to build a better network and have navigators who can help connect people to services. Transportation and childcare are big issues here, so if someone is working multiple jobs and they don't have a car or childcare to get to the agency that can help them, they're not going to get help. We need to start decentralizing stuff.

There's this concept called an occupational structure, which is a staircase of what levels of jobs are available in a certain locale. Here, ours is too concentrated on those lower paying hospitality and food service jobs. It doesn't mean we pay less in those industries than other cities, just that those jobs aren't well paying to begin with and there aren't as many opportunities in industries that allow people to move up. We need to diversify. My fear is once this is over, people will snap back and say, ‘Let's get the economy roaring again' without addressing what we've seen with how we treat low wage working women of color. If we don't change that now, how is it going to be different when the next disaster occurs? We need more occupations that pay a living wage and more ways for people to access them. There are programs—Project Quest and Training for Job Success, which is federally funded—but we need more opportunities and we need to connect people to those training programs and make sure there are jobs when they finish.

You also research domestic violence in San Antonio. How has COVID-19 impacted that?

It has increased because of the pandemic—not just here but everywhere. The U.N. estimates there has been a 20 percent increase worldwide. Of all of the things in the “Status of Women in San Antonio” report, domestic violence was the thing that got the City Council's attention the most, that San Antonio had higher rates of domestic violence, so work had begun to address and decrease domestic violence in San Antonio. Unfortunately, we hadn't made enough headway before the pandemic hit. It looked like we could do amazing things and then the pandemic hit. Now, compared to health and the economy, I don't know that people have the bandwidth for this issue.

And you're involved in a research project about this topic?

UTSA is going to do a big community survey on domestic violence with part of the COVID CARES Act funds the city received, and I'll be involved with working on that survey. There has never been a comprehensive survey of San Antonio about domestic violence. This will partly focus on COVID implications—did it get worse, which we know it did, but how much?—but also it will be just about what people's experiences are of the system. Because if people reach out for help once and they don't feel like they got help or they feel they were discriminated against, maybe the next time they won't call back. It's also learning about whether people know where to reach out and where to go if they do need help.

It's super-exciting to work on this because it was clear when we did the “Status of Women in San Antonio” report that it's tough to get accurate data on domestic violence. I hope the data can help guide the need for services. There is already a domestic violence task force out there, and a city-county commission on domestic violence, but this survey will give a better idea of how widespread the problem is, who reaches out for help, what their experiences of help are like, and what the gaps in services are.

In the report on women, you also noted a lack of female representation on the City Council and in leadership. Now, women represent more than half of the city's council districts. Does that help?

I am hopeful that with female leaders in place, some of this stuff will get attention. For women, this stuff isn't abstract. They have lived it or they have family members who have lived it so it's not academic to them. In Boston and California, for example, there are laws requiring wage equity. Boston has a whole office in the mayor's office about the advancement of women and California has an office dedicated to equity. You can teach women to negotiate for higher salaries but without a law compelling people to pay attention, it's tough to fix. If you look around the world, data shows that the countries that did the best against COVID-19 had women leaders so I think we're very lucky to have so many women on the City Council now. Maybe more will happen on these crucial issues.

— Amanda Cerreto