Diana Limongi has spent the last year trying to balance her part-time contracts while supervising her 10-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

While Limongi, 39, says she and her husband did their best at “tag teaming” throughout the day to balance child care, a lot of responsibilities fell to her because he was working full time.

The juggling act pushed her past the brink of exhaustion. Limongi’s son returned to in-person learning in January, and after months of searching, she finally secured a spot at an affordable day care close to home for her daughter. The mornings were still tough though, as her daughter struggled to adjust to the new school.

I told my husband, ‘I feel defeated.’ Like it’s 8:30, I haven’t started my work day. She has completely emotionally drained me,” Limongi said.

Around the anniversary of the pandemic, Limongi’s body just gave out, she said. She ended up in bed for several days.

Despite this, Limongi said, she could easily be described as one of the lucky ones. During a pandemic that has set women’s gender equality back a generation, she was able to continue working, albeit part time. And with both her kids back in school, Limongi finally has uninterrupted time to get her work done.

A recent surge in hiring has given economists hope that the “she-cession” may be ending. After 2.5 million women left the workforce during the pandemic, 492,000 women reentered the workforce in March. In addition to women leaving their jobs because of caregiving responsibilities, many women were driven out of the workforce because of the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on industries that largely employ women.

While the job growth reflected in the latest report is “pretty amazing,” said Claire Ewing-Nelson, a research fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, she cautioned that there is still cause for concern for female workers.

“We need another few months of gains to really say what’s going on and how it’s going to shake out,” she said.

These gains were concentrated mostly in the hospitality and leisure industry, as restaurants, bars and hotels nationwide began scaling up their operations, she noted.

According to the NWLC’s analysis, leisure and hospitality added 280,000 jobs last month, with women accounting for slightly less than half of that number. Before the pandemic, women made up 53.2 percent of jobs in this industry.

This wasn’t the case for the retail industry, where women made up only 2.2 percent of the 22,500 jobs gained in that sector in March.

The NWLC found that women working in the United States would need to reenter the workforce at the same rate as March for nearly 15 consecutive months to return to pre-pandemic employment levels.

Ewing-Nelson also pointed to long-standing racial disparities. The unemployment rates for Black and Latina women remained much higher: 8.7 and 7.3 percent, respectively, compared to 5.7 percent for all women nationwide.

“Black women with children have been the most likely to drop out of the labor force during this time,” noted Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

“The labor market is never even. And so the fact that the job loss was uneven and that the recovery is uneven is not a surprise, but it is something that we should be paying attention to,” Dixon added.

“We have to keep an eye on that Black women’s unemployment number in particular,” Ewing Nelson said. “If Black women’s unemployment can come down to a reasonable level, that’s a good indicator.”

Dixon predicts that retail may evolve in ways that restrict job growth, as Americans continue to rely on delivery services in lieu of visiting brick-and-mortar stores. Women with additional caregiving responsibilities may also have a hard time reentering those positions because of the often unpredictable and changing hours.

Like Ewing-Nelson, Dixon said an equitable recovery hinges on policy. She added that she is encouraged by increases in vaccination rates, but noted that child care remains a “rare commodity” for parents who most desperately need it.

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, chief executive and co-founder of the advocacy group Moms Rising, said the stimulus plan passed by Congress in March was helpful in stabilizing a struggling child-care industry, but more needed to be done to build out its current infrastructure.

Doing so would pave the way for even more growth, Rowe-Finkbeiner said: Dedicated care infrastructure could help create better jobs in “one of the fastest expected job growth areas in the coming decades” while also allowing parents to go back to work.

Limongi and her daughter are finally back into a morning routine, and the difference has been “night and day” for the working mom. She still works shortened days dropping the children off for school in the morning and picking them up again in the afternoon, but without the constant interruptions, she has regained her focus and enthusiasm.

“Someone in a call, before covid, said ‘Child care is liberation,’” Limongi said. “That is kind of what it feels like sometimes.”

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