The second September of the pandemic has come and gone — and for women, the work picture doesn’t seem much brighter than the first.
Last September, the numbers were arresting: 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force — at four times the rate of men, who lost 216,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At that point, much of the country was six months into stay-at-home orders, and most children had started the school year in remote learning.
This year showed a less precipitous plunge. Still, an alarming 309,000 women left the workforce in September. In contrast, men not only stemmed losses, but also gained employment, with 182,000 finding jobs last month, according to BLS data. Black women continue to be the least recovered from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
While some economists last year projected that we would be back to some normalcy this fall, the delta variant, which was surging in the United States in early September when the data was collected, has shifted outcomes.
“The pandemic is the number one factor: what’s happening with that, and what people feel is safe to do,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “The data are pretty clear that there are risks to going out, working around the public, and that is reflected in those numbers.”
And the numbers are part of a larger narrative. It’s the biggest exit since September 2020, on top of a general pandemic trend in which many jobs held mostly by women, and disproportionately women of color — service, retail, hospitality, caregiving — have been eliminated. And for many women, domestic responsibilities have increased while support structures such as day-care centers and nursing homes (which largely employ women) have collapsed, compounding losses.
Such has been the case for Carrie Funk, a restaurant industry veteran who was working as a consultant and general manager for a restaurant and bar in Los Angeles that opened in February 2020. She kept the business running, constantly pivoting and adapting to new protocols and behavior throughout the pandemic, she said. “We never had to close,” Funk, 37, said. “They managed to stay open and have a really good year.”
In the meantime, she got pregnant and continued working until she gave birth in January 2021. According to Funk, she was provided an extended maternity leave with a combination of family leave and disability benefits. She was slated to return to the restaurant in June, but said she was told the needs of the business had changed: “They needed me to return to a schedule of a minimum of 65 hours a week on-site.”
Before she went on leave, she said, she had been working 90 hours a week. But now, she could not afford a full-time nanny — which would be necessary to care for her 6-month-old, especially the late nights and weekends that restaurants and bars require.
“There was just no way I could physically make that happen,” she said. “So I ended up having to resign, essentially, against my will, and was able to get on the full federal unemployment and covid-19 unemployment.”
But while the pandemic has exacerbated and exposed the problem of women in the labor force, it did not create it, experts say.
“We compare ourselves to other peer countries — they continue to see those increases in women participating in the labor force, over much of the last 20 years,” Gould said. “You look at those countries, and you think, what do they do differently?”
According to Gould, many of those countries have better child-care policies, parental leave and paid sick leave. They are also more supportive of long-term care and home-health aides, and they provide higher wages for that work.
Still, the latest data caught many experts off guard, partly because of the pressure on schools to reopen for in-person learning, ostensibly freeing up child-care, home-school or supervising duties, which has disproportionately fallen on mothers. In addition, in September, pandemic unemployment benefits ended. Millions of Americans lost some or all benefits, yet workers did not fill all of the jobs in a tight labor market.
When Meagan O’Reilly was laid off from her nonprofit job in February, she would have looked for another job right away if she had, say, two children. But she has six in a blended family, including four eighth-graders.
Her husband has an intense job and a salary that covered the cost of their living, she said, but she had to manage the schedules and shifts of six children in four different schools learning online.
In 2020, she ran for city council in her town of Wauwatosa, Wis., and won, and she has been able to use her master’s in public policy and her work experience in a volatile year that saw much civil unrest. But O’Reilly, 44, is earning less than she did before at $400 a month, and she just took on 15 hours a week at another nonprofit. But with the uncertainty of covid exposures and quarantines affecting her children, she doesn’t think she can work full-time until the situation stabilizes.
She is proud of the work she did last year, she said, but there’s still so much uncertainty: “Did I save for retirement last year? Are we about to send six kids off to college?”
According to Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, September is “a transition month, as families shift into a different schedule.” As she put it: “People reassess what, where are we? And what can we expect? People who’ve been thinking, we’re almost there — I can just hold on till the next stage, get to the next stage — look around and say, ‘Actually, this is unsustainable.’”
As the delta variant surged, many Americans saw their plans for the new school skid to a halt; there was yet another set of calculations to be made.
“It isn’t shocking that that was a moment where hundreds of thousands of women concluded, ‘I need to come up with another vision for what I’m doing,’” Martin said. “Whether it’s ‘I’m not finding another job that meets my needs in this current moment’ or ‘I don’t feel safe going back to work’ or ‘I don’t feel like school is going to enable me to be at work.’”
Some women who have enough of a buffer to make choices about employment are not rushing back to work because of how the pandemic has reassigned their values.
Angie Sy, a 31-year-old kindergarten teacher at a public school in California’s Orange County, was laid off in June 2019 because of low student enrollment. Her husband is an aerospace engineer so they can manage on one income, and she is fortunate enough to have family nearby to help with child care, she said. But these years of living around coronavirus have made her reevaluate her priorities.
When she was called back to work, she had just had a second child. She could have gone back to work, but with the new baby and a two-year-old, the new coronavirus protocols, and adjustment back to school for the kids, she chose to stay home.
“What I’ve realized from the pandemic is that you don’t know what’s going to happen to us the next day,” Sy said. “So I really want to savor this time with my babies.”
But she’s confident that she can go back to work next year. She gets frequent calls from the district about open jobs, and she just declined another last week.
As for Funk, she has some savings, and she could work as a private chef. But, she said, that would disrupt the career trajectory she had been building. She recognizes her privilege relative to others in the service industry: She is White, has a college degree and has other options. Still, she said, she has spent 20 years working her way up in restaurants, and doesn’t want to waste that expertise or have the kind of resume gap that could drag down her future pay. There’s also the physical and mental toll of the industry she has to revisit now that she’s a mother.
“I just physically can’t do it to my body anymore,” Funk said. “It’s not a lifestyle that was sustainable.”