The December jobs report was shocking, even to experts who have been closely monitoring unemployment during the pandemic. The U.S. economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, marking the first rise in unemployment since May. Women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000 jobs.
That means the net number of jobs lost were held entirely by women. They were overwhelmingly women of color.
“I was taken off guard,” said Michelle Holder, a professor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The economy had been steadily improving, she said, as more Americans returned to normal routines throughout the summer and fall.
The demographics of those affected by December job losses were far less surprising. When the coronavirus crippled the economy in March, women of color were hit first and hardest. Disproportionately represented in service and hospitality — industries hamstrung by the coronavirus — Black women and Latinas are also far more likely than White women to be forced out of the workforce by the current child-care crisis, Holder said. With many schools and day cares still closed, working in jobs that cannot be done remotely, they are often left with no choice.
Of course, many men left the workforce in December. The numbers reflect the net number of jobs lost: For every man who lost a job, another found work. The employment rate for men actually increased in December, with men gaining 16,000 jobs over the course of the month.
Men usually bear the brunt of a national recession. When the economy bottoms out, consumers start by avoiding big-ticket items, Holder said, such as cars and homes. Two of the first industries affected are usually construction and manufacturing, she said, where the vast majority of employees are men. The coronavirus has weakened different sectors of the economy, as people have been forced to stay home.
Black women and Latinas are disproportionately affected by the behavior of those who can work from home, said Kristen Broady, an economics fellow at the Brookings Institution. When office workers don’t go to the office, she said, they don’t need the baristas, cooks, dry cleaners and custodial staff that used to help them through the workday.
“Who is in those jobs but Black and Brown people?” Broady said. “You’re talking about Black and Brown women.”
White women are far more likely to be the ones working from home, she said.
December was a particularly bad month for employees who work in retail, another industry dominated by women of color, Broady said. While stores typically hire more employees to help them through the holiday rush, she said, many more Americans did their holiday shopping online this year.
“Customers still spent the money they had to spend, but it really hurt the people who would have worked there and made commissions — who would have used that extra money to make it through the next couple months,” Broady said.
Stores such as Walmart and Target realized that they can drastically cut back on employees without hurting their bottom lines, she said.
Layoffs aren’t the only problem. Women — and especially women of color — are being pushed out of jobs because they have to care for kids at home. For months, women have been leaving the workforce in droves. A whopping 865,000 women left the workforce in September — when many schools began the new year remotely — compared with 216,000 men.
September was a breaking point for many working mothers, exhausted and burned out from months with kids at home, who realized there was no end in sight. December was likely a similar moment for parents, as they realized it may be months before the vaccine reaches enough people to send kids back to school, said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economics professor who leads the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
“Women are sitting there thinking, ‘We’re only halfway through academic year, and the kids will be home all year,’ ” Schanzenbach said. If someone needs to scale back at work in a two-parent heterosexual household, she said, it will probably be the woman, who almost certainly assumes the bulk of the caregiving responsibilities.
“A lot of women have just had to give up,” she said.
In these situations, women of color have fewer options than White women, Holder said. As hard as it is to work from home with kids around, she said, it’s somewhat feasible. If you work on-site and can’t afford other child care as a substitute for school, Holder said, “what choice do you have?”
The child-care crisis is particularly acute for single mothers, Holder said, with no partner to help. Black women and Latinas are more likely to be raising kids alone: 64 percent of Black children and 42 percent of Latino children are raised by single parents, the vast majority of whom are single mothers — versus 24 percent of White children.
It’s too soon to know why so many women left the workforce in December, Schanzenbach said. In the coming weeks, she said, scholars will tackle these numbers, trying to determine how many women lost their jobs and how many were pushed out of the workforce for child-care reasons.
Women who leave the workforce now will almost certainly struggle to come back, she said. In normal, non-coronavirus times, women who leave the workforce to have kids stay out longer than they expect to, often returning to less prestigious and lower-paid jobs.
Many jobs lost by women of color may never return. Some companies are starting to announce permanent remote-work policies, allowing employees to work from home indefinitely. If that happens on a large scale, Broady said, the cashiers at the happy-hour bars and downtown coffee shops will have to find new jobs in new areas.
It’s not clear what those new jobs will be.