COVID-19 and the disappearance of millions of working women

If it wasn’t clear before this month’s job numbers, it is now: the pandemic is turning back the clock for women.

In September, more than 1.1 million workers left the labor force, meaning they were no longer working or looking for work. A full 80 percent of those workers were women, with Latinas especially overrepresented. In fact, a net 2.65 million women have left the labor force since February. These numbers are unprecedented. Before this year, January 1958 held the record for women’s labor force losses. In that month 62 years ago, 550,000 women left the labor force — hundreds of thousands fewer than this September. 

Alternatively, if we look at labor force participation rates, 56.8 percent of women were in the labor force in September, compared to 59.2 percent in February. The current rate was last seen late in the Reagan administration. We have lost more than a generation of gains.

Why are women going backward? For one reason, on the first day of school this year about half of students were attending remotely. For parents working from home, this has meant toggling between homeschooling and Zoom meetings, stretching to do two jobs at once. But housekeepers, nurses and grocery store cashiers can’t work from home. For these workers, distance learning compounds an ongoing child care crisis as providers have closed or reduced capacity in the wake of the pandemic. Meanwhile, grandparents who might have lent a helping hand in the past now are often unavailable because of the risk of infection. As a result, many working parents are being forced to choose between a paycheck and ensuring that their kids are safe and learning each day. In the face of that terrible choice, women are the ones sacrificing jobs.

During the pandemic we have heard a lot about essential workers. Women are the majority of these workers, and Black women are especially likely to work in frontline jobs. But while “essential” suggests recognition of the value of this work that has propped up the economy and the nation, in fact, essential workers have rarely had a choice other than to show up and bear the risk of work on the frontlines. If they leave their jobs, they are typically ineligible for unemployment benefits, and while some companies boosted wages early in the pandemic in recognition of the risk these workers were taking, many of these increases were short-lived. Lawmakers have also failed to value their work. Senate Republicans have refused to take up either version of the twice House-passed HEROES Act, which (among other critical relief) would have provided new workplace safety standards, expansion of paid family leave for those without child care and premium pay to frontline workers. “Essential” became the word we used to describe those who were given no choice but to bear risks and make sacrifices for the rest of us. 

Now, women are newly “essential” family caregivers in just the same way. They shoulder the lion’s share of family responsibilities, in part because in families with different-sex parents, gender wage gaps (largest for Black women, Latinas and Native women) mean that if one parent has to leave work for caregiving, it will typically be the woman. Women have also faced higher unemployment rates than men throughout this recession, with Black women and Latinas facing the highest of all. As temporary job losses become permanent and caregiving needs mount, some of these women have given up on finding a new job. And many single mothers are left with no choice other than to quit work in the face of a collapse of caregiving infrastructure. While this family care is “essential,” here, too, policy choices are requiring hundreds of thousands of women to sacrifice their jobs and their families’ financial security.

For decades, we have relied on families, and specifically on women, to stretch and piece together patchwork, personal solutions to child care needs that call out for public investments and systemic responses. This year, that jerry-rigged system has come crashing down, with the most severe consequences for Black women and Latinas who were already balanced on the knife’s edge, with no margin for error. Never have we seen the exodus of women from the labor force that we have seen this year. And we know that lengthy spells out of work lead to lower wages upon return. We are facing heightened financial insecurity for women and the families who depend on them, the risk of a growing gender wage gap and a step backward for gender equality at work and at home. And the exits from the labor force we saw last month could be just the beginning. In the absence of a national pandemic response plan that meets public health needs, provides immediate relief for women and families and builds for an equitable recovery, women will keep being dragged backward.

This is the moment to change course: The Senate must take up COVID-19 relief. To ensure we don’t continue to sacrifice women’s jobs and families’ financial security, it must include at least $50 billion of federal investments in child care and the funding necessary for safe K-12 school reopening. It must also provide cash assistance for individuals, including the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits that expired at the end of July and an extension in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that supports those who can’t work due to school closures (set to expire at the end of the year), as well as paid leave for all those who must take time off for child care. We must act now to make sure that COVID-19 does not undo decades of progress for women.

Emily Martin is vice president for Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center. She oversees NWLC’s advocacy, policy, and education efforts to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunity for women and girls at work and at school, with a particular focus on women and girls of color and women in low-wage jobs.

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