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Covid job losses hit working mothers especially hard

The pandemic hammered the U.S. economy, taking jobs away across the board, but women have faced some special challenges.
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WASHINGTON — The Covid-19 pandemic hammered the U.S. economy, taking jobs away across the board, but some workers have faced a harder path — and women have faced some special challenges.

A lot of the jobs that were lost in the service sector, in businesses like restaurants and hotels, were held by women. And many mothers with children at home had a difficult time balancing work and home life when schools switched to remote learning. Add it all up and you see how the economic downturn was in many ways more challenging for women and moms in particular.

More than a year into the COVID crisis the situation looks a lot better on the surface, but that comes after some very hard months.

Unemployment is down for everyone, of course, as vaccines take hold and infection rates drop, and April figures showed women, with a rate of 5.8 percent, were actually doing a bit better than men, with a rate of 6.3 percent, overall.

Even as the data show a rosier picture now, however, look at the challenges for women in the last year. Back in April of 2020, the unemployment rate for women 16.1 percent, a full 2.5 points higher than the number for men. And those “percentage points” are just data points. Each one represents more than 1 million people, so that gap was significant.

For parents, the pandemic presented additional challenges, such as how to raise and educate children in a Covid-19 world. The data suggest mothers faced deeper impacts in the workforce.

The number of mothers who stopped looking for work during the height of the pandemic got close to 30 percent and grew more than the number of fathers, according to an analysis from the Pew Research Center.

There may be a number of factors that drove mothers from the workforce, from lack of available positions to health concerns around the virus, but it's impossible to ignore the impact of having young children at home.

As many daycare centers and K-12 schools switched to remote learning, parents increasingly had to take on the role of educating their children at home and, often, that task fell to mothers. For parents of younger children, who require more supervision, the job was even more complicated and intense.

And there are some impacts that can’t be seen in unemployment or job numbers. Even among mothers and fathers who kept their jobs during the pandemic, those "teleworking from home," mothers bore a larger share of the childcare duties, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Among teleworking working mothers, 36 percent said they had a lot of childcare responsibilities on top of their other job while working from home, and another 30 percent said they had some childcare responsibilities. The impacts were lighter for teleworking fathers. Only 16 percent of them said they had a lot of childcare, less than half the figure for mothers, while another 48 percent of fathers said they had some responsibilities.

More than a year into the pandemic there are a lot of bright signs this spring. Vaccinated families may be getting together for brunch or picnics with mothers. And the employment numbers look better for everyone, including mothers, especially as schools reopen and seem to be planning for a more normal fall.

But turning the page on Covid-19 is likely to take time. Some of these economic and societal impacts are likely to linger a while. And as Congress turns its attention to “social infrastructure” issues such as family leave, these numbers and the stories behind them are still going to be fresh in people's minds and are likely to play a role in the debate.