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As the overall job market stumbles back, women still struggle to recover lost employment

"Our policymaking has not accounted for the fact that people’s work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked, and if one suffers so does the other," Yellen said.
Image:; A woman listens as instructions are given to people waiting in line to check in at the Kentucky Career Center in downtown Louisville on April 15, 2021.
People wait in line to check in at the Kentucky Career Center in downtown Louisville on April 15.Jeff Faughender / Courier Journal via USA Today Network

More than a year after the pandemic ravaged the economy, the country now faces how it will heal. The answer, according to several economists, lies in closing the gender disparity that cleaved the country in two. But as the overall job market stumbles its way back, women are still behind in recovering lost employment.

"Between February and April 2020, 4.2 million women dropped out of the labor force, in large part due to an unexpected caregiving burden. Nearly 2 million have not yet returned," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Friday at a White House press briefing on the April employment report. "The challenge before us is to help these 2 million women to return to the labor market ... to help the millions of other workers who left prior to the pandemic to do the same."

"Our policymaking has not accounted for the fact that people’s work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked, and if one suffers so does the other," she said. "The pandemic has made this very clear."

The latest employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that of the 266,000 people who rejoined the workforce in April, 161,000 of those were women.

The pandemic recession stands out from previous economic crises because it hit sectors that are more likely to employ women, said Kathryn Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank.

As states restricted in-person work to the bare essentials, millions of women found themselves out of a job. Women make up the majority of workers in the health sector, which has lost more than 540,000 jobs over the course of the pandemic. Retail, where about half of workers are women, lost 400,00 jobs. The restaurant industry, where women represent half the workforce, ended 2020 with 2.5 million fewer jobs than pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

“One of the things about this crisis is that it is multilayered,” Kate Bahn, director of labor market policy and an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, told NBC News. “Women are overrepresented in the highest risk jobs [and] most marginalized women have used child care that is not addressed by public policy; it just reached a crescendo.”

Women are more likely to take on the responsibilities for caregiving at home whether it is children, in-laws, family members or parents, said Kweilin Ellingrud, a senior partner focused on gender equality research with the consulting firm McKinsey and Company. They are also more likely to do the shopping and cleaning for the home. McKinsey found about 40 percent of mothers versus 20 percent of fathers added 20 hours or more per week of domestic work last year, with most of those responsibilities including child care and cooking.

Additionally, the jobs more likely to be occupied by women before the pandemic — customer service, retail, sales — are becoming more automated as consumers become more comfortable shopping and banking online, she said. Over the next 10 years, about 17 million workers in the U.S. are going to need to change entire occupations or they are going to have to change jobs within occupation, according to McKinsey. About 80 percent of those jobs fall into categories dominated by women including administrative support, customer service, sales and food service.

“It’s been a double whammy here on women impacting work at home and dramatically increasing the impact on certain occupations,” Ellingrud said.

President Joe Biden introduced the American Families Plan last week, a proposal to begin public schooling at age 3 — potentially saving families thousands of dollars a year on child care — and to cap a family’s out-of-pocket cost of child care on a sliding scale. It would also mandate a 12-week paid family and medical leave policy to care for children, siblings or a spouse.

“It is important to keep in mind that child care has economic dividends and enables people to work,” Edwards said. “This isn't a policy that is a free gift or handout to mothers; this is an economic investment that our current situation calls for.”

The U.S. could be on track to see roughly $2.4 trillion shaved off its gross domestic production without interventions to drive women’s employment, Ellingrud said. Women also raise wages across the board for all workers, according to research from Amanda Weinstein, an economics professor at the University of Akron.

Even with targeted support, women’s employment will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, a full 18 months after overall jobs recover, according to McKinsey.

“How can an economy fight with one hand tied behind your back?” Ellingrud said. “It’s hard to grow the full economy at the same rate when half the population is women.”

Austin Mathouser was working at a bowling alley in San Jacinto, California, as a server and bartender before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In March 2020, she was laid off after the venue was forced to close to stem potential spread of the virus.

Mathouser, a 30-year-old single mother of three young children, found another job in customer service with a dropshipping company seven months later. But when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with Covid-19, Mathouser's employer did not offer medical leave and she said she had no choice but to resign in order to care for her. She has been supporting her family on $100 a week ever since.

Her weekly unemployment check barely covers the cost of her phone, gas and insurance, let alone child care, she said.

“It's a little frustrating and overwhelming," she said. "With three children and how expensive child care is, I would just be putting everything that I make into just having someone watch my kids."

While out of work, Mathouser plays the role of mom and teacher.

“I'm trying to make sure that my fourth grader and my first grader are doing what they're supposed to be doing and at different times,” she said. “It's very frustrating, but we're doing the best that we can.”