The pandemic drove women out of the workforce. Will they come back?

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Sandee Barrick was making a six-figure salary as a salesperson when she quit her job in December 2019 to move to North Carolina. She had planned to return to work as soon as she got settled, but she was still enrolling her younger son in school and switching over her driver’s license and registration when the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything shut down. At first she made plans for when she went back to work, but slowly that shifted to if she would go.

So far, at least, she hasn’t. Barrick, a 51-year-old mother of two, worries sometimes about her 401(k) and the money she could have been adding to it over the past 18 months had she been working. She worries too about her elder son’s college tuition and what she would do if the cost increased or financial aid decreased.

But mostly she values the extra time at home, the holidays she no longer has to work through and the fact that she no longer feels she’s racing through her life on auto-pilot, tied up not just with “the job and the kids but the scheduling of doctor’s appointments, and the cooking and the cleaning.” She and her husband have decided they can make it work on one income, and the setup also feels, at least for now, like it’s best for their family.

“The longer I’m out of it, the more I’m just kind of like, well, should I go back?” Barrick said. “The longer time goes by, the more ambivalent I get.”


Barrick is far from alone. Nearly 1.8 million women have dropped out of the labor force amid the pandemic and are now grappling with whether and how to return to work in a vastly different landscape — one where some jobs have disappeared, others are vulnerable to automation, and nearly all involve some level of health risk.

Returning to work after so many months at home also means, for many mothers, finding a new form of child care and giving up the additional time spent with families and kids that the pandemic provided. Taking into account how the labor force was growing pre-pandemic, 2.3 million fewer women are working now than would have been without the disruption.

Overall, 57.5 percent of women aged 20 and older were participating in the U.S. labor force in June — down from 59.2 percent in February 2020 and a level that, even after months of improvement, is still the lowest in more than 30 years. Economists caution that women’s workforce participation in the U.S. has been stagnant for decades, more or less plateauing around 2000 — a phenomenon experts say shows that even before the pandemic, working women needed more societal supports than were available. But the pandemic still dealt a resounding blow.

The pandemic hit women harder than men

Month-to-month change in civilian labor force, in women and men 20 years and older

The question now, which holds major implications for the economy, is how many of those women will come back.

There’s cause for concern. So far, low-income women and women of color are lagging far behind other groups in how fast they are returning to work and recovering financially. Mothers across the income spectrum have been forced to take on additional child care responsibilities as schools and day cares have closed. And some higher-income women are moving to lower cost of living areas — allowing two-parent families to justify going down to one income — or opting to pause or downshift their careers. Barrick and her husband downsized significantly in their move from Ohio to North Carolina, and the lower mortgage payment is part of the reason she’s been able to stay home.

Data showing so many women on the sidelines has amped up pressure on Congress and the Biden administration to funnel new federal investments into the child care industry and to enact benefits, including paid family leave. Employers, too, are fielding calls to allow for more flexible hours and more remote work — two changes that experts expect would particularly benefit women.

Economists are warning that failing to get women back to work would have detrimental effects on the broader economy: Every 10 percent increase in women working is associated with a 5 percent increase in wages for all workers as overall labor force productivity increases, one University of Akron economist found. And equalizing employment across gender would have added almost $500 billion to U.S. GDP in 2019, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concluded in a report earlier this year. Women make up about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but 51 percent of the overall population.


In the meantime, as Congress debates a legislative path forward and companies figure out how to adapt, women like Barrick are making decisions about their next steps. And often, they’re making changes: As many as 1 in 4 corporate women have said they are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce altogether, according to surveys done by the consulting firms Deloitte and McKinsey. Deloitte also found that nearly 3 in 5 women planned to leave their employers in two years or less, and they cited a lack of work-life balance as their top reason for wanting out.

“I used to be pretty hard-charging. I used to do a lot, and I look back and I’m like, ‘How did I do all of that?’” Barrick said. “I don’t know where my place is anymore.”

If women’s labor force participation rate remains depressed, wealthy and well-educated women may be a major reason why. These are women whose households can more often afford to go down to one income, while lower earners cannot. Women married to men in roughly the top fifth of all earners have been contributing to the flattening of women’s overall labor force participation for years, said Stefania Albanesi, a University of Pittsburgh economist.

There are signs the coronavirus pandemic could push more of them to the sidelines, exacerbating that trend. Some women who took a break from the workforce amid the pandemic — often to take care of their kids — could be facing the possibility of earning less when they return, as research has shown mothers do when they take a year or two off to have a baby.

Those “spells of nonparticipation” account for as much as 30 percent of the gender wage gap, Albanesi said — so if taking a break during the pandemic to stay home with children is considered a similar period of nonparticipation, that could have downward pressure on women’s future earnings.

“That’s something that could generate a cycle by which women are not able to get back to the earning level that they had before,” said Albanesi, who has researched gender disparities in the impact of the coronavirus on the labor market. “And that’s discouraging.”

Dropping out of the workforce could also become more economically feasible for families who moved during the pandemic to areas with a lower cost of living. More than 31 percent of Redfin.com users are now searching for homes outside of their area, the real estate website found, a 6 percentage point increase from early 2019. An April survey of 600 Redfin users who had relocated in the past year found that nearly 8 in 10 reported being in a similar or better financial position after their move.

“For many families Redfin has relocated, the money saved on housing costs lets one parent stop working,” company CEO Glenn Kelman wrote on Twitter earlier this summer. “A wave of Redfin customers are retiring early.”

Or it may simply be a matter of choice, possibly driven by burnout, as other surveys show. And it could be too soon to tell how lasting those changes will be.


For Haley Stomp, a 46-year-old in Des Moines, Iowa, the coronavirus toppled the elaborate balancing act she and her husband had set up to take care of their two boys. After spending hours last fall looking at their finances, figuring out how long they could go without her income as a senior vice president of marketing at a global multinational company, Stomp took a sabbatical at the start of the year and later decided not to return.

“I just couldn’t picture myself going back,” she said, “into the constant meetings.”

In the months since she left, she’s gone through different stages — at times wondering if she’ll ever be motivated enough to return to work, or more recently, getting excited again to have a job once she finds something with the right amount of flexibility.

“Covid took some of that fear away, that fear of change, because we were already going through so much change,” Stomp said. “It was a time to take some chances.”

The barriers to returning to the labor force have proven particularly acute for mothers, who disproportionately shoulder caretaking responsibilities in the U.S. and who began taking on the added burden of helping kids through virtual school when schools were closed because of the pandemic.

Women’s labor force participation dropped sharply when the economy first shut down, a likely reflection of their disproportionate representation in service industry sectors that were decimated by closures. Their participation rate started to recover over the summer, but then it dropped again in the fall when the school year began and more kids needed help with online learning. About 44 percent of women said they were the only one in their household providing care when schools and day cares shut down, according to one study, compared to just 14 percent of men.

Mothers with school-age children are now regaining jobs more slowly compared to 2019 than those without dependent children, according to an analysis by Misty Heggeness, principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau. And a pair of University of Pennsylvania economists found that not only did child care closures last year increase joblessness among mothers of young children in the short-term, those unemployment effects grew larger over time and persisted even after shutdown orders were lifted.

“We have got to make strides, big strides in terms of providing child care so that women can return to the workforce,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

Speier and other Democratic lawmakers and economists have begun to warn that without sweeping federal intervention — particularly investments in accessible, affordable child care and policies mandating paid family leave — women’s workforce participation rate could lag for years and might never fully recover to its pre-2020 level. Investing in child care would have the double-barreled benefit of employing more workers in the industry, where women hold a staggering 95 percent of all jobs.

President Joe Biden has proposed large-scale investments in new policies to support children and families, including some $650 billion to make child care programs more affordable, implement universal prekindergarten and create the country’s first national paid family and medical leave program. But Republicans and even some Democrats have criticized the cost of Biden’s proposals, with some suggesting that the economy is recovering well on its own and doesn’t need more aid.

In the meantime, data show that in the past few months, “moms are kind of pulling back,” said Heggeness of the Census Bureau, who has broken down Labor Department data to examine how mothers living with dependent children are faring compared to women overall. “Some of them, it appears, are struggling to stay actively working.”


Those struggles to return to steady work have been particularly significant for Black and Hispanic women, who are recovering more slowly than their male counterparts, and low-income women, some of whom are battling the scarring effects of long-term unemployment that make it more difficult to return to the workforce at all. Low-income workers are also least likely to have savings to weather a long period of joblessness and, when they’re working, least likely to have access to federal supports like child care and paid leave that can help ease the burden of juggling work with caretaking responsibilities.

Some experts fear it’s those women in low-wage jobs who are the most at risk of dropping out permanently. And it’s no small number: 46 percent of all working women — or 28 million — work in low-wage professions making a median $10.93 per hour, a Brookings Institution analysis of 2018 government data found. That compares with 37 percent of men.

“It’s lower-income, hourly workers who are experiencing the biggest hit to their working hours and labor force participation,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who focuses on issues of gender inequality. “Those are the ones we should be most concerned about.”

For many women, it’s not one hurdle keeping them on the sidelines at this point but a combination — a blend of health concerns as the pandemic lingers and difficulties finding a job that pays enough to cover the costs of child care.

Sabreena Osborne was working as an online coding instructor when coronavirus shutdowns took hold last spring, and she held onto her job even as the unemployment rate shot up to nearly 17 percent in her home state of Indiana. But then she had a baby.


Osborne went into labor in mid-January, seven weeks before her due date. Her teaching contract was terminated in April, after company leaders said they didn’t have enough hours available to keep her on payroll. And now Osborne, a single mother, is at home full-time with her son, poring over online job boards to find something she qualifies for that either allows her to work remotely or that would pay enough to cover the cost of child care.

Even then, she worries about the health risks of putting a 6-month-old who was born two months premature into daycare.

“I don’t see,” she said in June, “how I can go back to work.”

For every woman moving out of the workforce, however, there could be another one moving in — or moving up. That’s the scenario some economists are hopeful comes from the coronavirus pandemic, which upended the office environment and could ultimately end up benefiting women over the long term.

One major way that could happen is if more employers adopt remote and flexible work policies in a permanent way. Nearly 1 in 5 women said they never want to return to work in person, according to a Morning Consult survey conducted in late June, compared to just 7 percent of men.

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist and leading expert on the female labor force, wrote back in 2014 that if companies “did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours,” then the gender wage gap between men and women “would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether.”

She’s optimistic now that it looks as if the cost of flexibility has been reduced.

“Let’s say it was always the case that M&As had to be done in person. You had to go to Tokyo, you had to shake the hand of the person with whom you were signing the contract,” Goldin said, using an acronym for mergers and acquisitions, a type of business deal. “That meant that many parents, disproportionately women, couldn’t take those jobs. They couldn’t go to Tokyo every other week.”

But if that sort of thing can now be done virtually, she continued, “women can take those jobs.”

Other policymakers and child care advocates are bullish that because of the spotlight the pandemic put on the country’s lack of so-called caring infrastructure — school and daycare shutdowns made it impossible to ignore — it started a national conversation that could lead to actual policy changes, especially around child care and paid leave.

“The pandemic made a preexisting problem worse, and so it heightened the need for an intervention that was already needed,” said Jocelyn Frye, a former Obama White House official who now works on issues relating to women and families at the Center for American Progress. “To do nothing is not only to have missed the lesson of the pandemic — it is to affirmatively say, ‘We don’t care.’”

Biden has made clear that improving the country’s child care system and family leave policies are priorities for his administration. Susan Rice, who leads Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, joined a coalition meeting of more than 20 child care advocacy organizations in early July to emphasize the importance of including the president’s child care plan in the infrastructure package that’s currently being negotiated, according to a person familiar with the meeting — a sign of the White House’s focus on the issue.


And Speier, the California congresswoman, said she has spoken about the need for changes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is committed to making sure Congress prioritizes children and working mothers in the next package.

The hope now among advocates of those policies is that the pandemic forced a focus on longstanding structural issues and made them impossible to avoid. And that despite the hardships of the past 18 months, and those that could linger far longer, the long-term benefits will be significant.

“The pandemic, the gift that it gave us with all of the sorrow and heartbreak and vicious attacks on our economy, it gave us a major slap in the face to what is happening in America with our economy and women,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), a co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she added. “But I am very hopeful we can get there.”



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