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When 43-year-old Marisela Gaitan learned her two-month furlough was coming to an end, she knew she was lucky.

But it was May 2020, and returning to work brought with it coronavirus pandemic-particular stressors. As a full-time manager at a clothing store in Phoenix, she no longer had time to go on regular grocery runs for her elderly parents, who live nearby, to limit their possible exposure to the coronavirus. And when shoppers in the store she managed refused to wear masks or respect her personal space, she kept returning to one thought: If I catch the coronavirus, will I infect my parents?

Her worries were especially acute because Gaitan knew multiple people — including her uncle — who died after contracting the coronavirus, she said. Her bosses discouraged employees from confronting customers who weren’t wearing masks, she said, a move that didn’t help ease her fears.

“They didn’t want any bad publicity,” Gaitan said.

For Gaitan, “the lack of empathy and compassion” from customers during the pandemic made her realize that she wanted out of her job.

Gaitan began studying for her real estate license in January, and in the meantime started working at a luxury boutique with greater protections and less exposure to clients. But her concerns — around safety, caregiving and flexibility — remain at the heart of many female workers’ decisions about whether to return to their pre-pandemic jobs.

The pandemic’s impact on women has been well documented over the last year: At the start of the pandemic, women lost jobs at a much higher pace than men, with 11.3 million jobs held by women disappearing within weeks of nationwide shutdowns. As of June, women have lost nearly 4.2 million net jobs, compared to 3.7 million for men.

Many of these jobs were in industries hardest hit by pandemic regulations: retail, hospitality, restaurants and child care. They are also industries in which women are overrepresented as workers.

But as the United States appears to turn the corner on the pandemic — about 50 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, while businesses and offices are scaling up their operations again — women’s workforce participation has a long way to go to reach economic recovery.

Over the last five months, women have returned to work at much lower rates than men. But the May jobs report brought some good news: The economy added 559,000 jobs, more than half of which went to women. At that rate, the National Women’s Law Center predicted it would take women 13 months to recover the jobs they lost due to the pandemic.

Most of the month’s gains for women were in the leisure and hospitality industry.

There are many reasons the recovery is inconsistent, said Adriana Kugler, a professor at Georgetown University and former chief economist at the Labor Department during the Obama administration.

The jobs being created versus the ones that have gone away simply don’t match up, she said. There are also just not enough jobs. Eight million job openings in March, for example, might sound pretty good — but that has to be weighed against the 21 million seeking full-time work, Kugler said.

Wages have either remained stagnant or depressed over the last year — a fact that is true in most recessions, said Kugler. But with pandemic-specific concerns such as safety or the cost of caregiving front of mind for many women, these wages simply aren’t enough to meet their needs, especially if they need child care or other caregiving support to work.

This was the case for 44-year-old Jennifer Knapp, who took a job as a full-time receptionist at a hotel spa near her home in Chelsea, Maine, in September 2019. She had spent the previous 12 years as a stay-at-home mom.

But within seven months, she was gone. Her hours had been cut “left and right” due to dwindling business during the pandemic, and her managers refused to replace hand sanitizer when it ran out or install a plexiglass partition between the receptionists and customers, she said.

“The hospitality business is hard on a regular playing field. It’s a tough job and we were wildly underpaid,” said Knapp. “Once covid hit, our job got exponentially harder — it was scary to go to work, so it took a job that was already difficult and made it so much more challenging.”

Jennifer Knapp at her home in Chelsea, Maine. (Gabe Souza for The Washington Post)
Jennifer Knapp at her home in Chelsea, Maine. (Gabe Souza for The Washington Post)

And as a single mother with two teenagers at home who were relying on remote learning — including one who struggled adjusting to the technology — she felt she had no other choice but to go back home.

Caregiving constraints are still a major barrier for women reentering the workforce, said Kugler. A third of working women are parents, and studies show many of them have shouldered the extra housework and caregiving burdens of the pandemic. According to data from the American Enterprise Institute and Davidson College, half of schools have resumed in-person learning as of May 10, leaving many working moms still unable to commit to a full work schedule.

“[Women] may be coming back to part time jobs or to more gig type work. That does offer them that flexibility, but it's less than optimal,” said Kugler.

Paring down hours means less money, but hospital and retail jobs, in particular, can offer unpredictable schedules to their workers, fluctuating based on how busy the workplace is or how many employees are available. It also means fewer workplace protections and benefits, such as health insurance.

Throughout the pandemic, working moms who couldn’t make enough money to justify paying for child care while at work said they were left in limbo.

These dilemmas hit women of color the hardest, which was reflected in unemployment rates. The unemployment rate was higher for women than for men throughout the pandemic, but it was even worse for Black women and Latinas by sizable margins. While 5.4 percent of all women were unemployed in May, this rate was 8.2 percent for Black women, and 7.4 percent for Latinas, according to the NWLC.

The racial and gender inequalities in the recovery are a direct reflection of preexisting inequities in the labor market, said Michelle Holder, a labor economist who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It’s taking longer [for women to gain jobs back] because the sectors which were hit are only slowly recovering,” said Holder. “And actually some may never recover, particularly the retail sector.”

These are also jobs in which women of color — particularly Black women and Latinas — are overrepresented. Regarding the retail sector, Holder predicts that spending habits may have shifted permanently because of the pandemic, with people feeling less inclined to visit brick-and-mortar stores than in the past.

As we look ahead to the summer, she said she is more optimistic about much of the hospitality industry rebounding, including hotels, restaurants, bars and events.

“People in this country, they want to go out. They want to congregate with others. They want to enjoy themselves,” she said.

What remains unclear is the timeline of that recovery, she said, and whether those jobs are still attractive to the people who held them before.

Lauren Paylor, 29, helped launch wellness company Focus on Health during the pandemic after spending most of the last seven years working in restaurants. Focus on Health specifically targets health and wellness among restaurant workers.

As a bartender and assistant general manager, Paylor took pride in giving “extremely personal experiences” to her customers. But over time, she said, she noticed the demands of her job left her little time or energy to tend to herself or her partner.

Paylor also began to notice deep inequities in the restaurant industry at large: Kitchen workers were not aware of their rights because guidelines were not given to them in their languages and there was a lack of internal promotions.

Restaurants need to be more responsive to their workers’ needs if they’re to draw them back, she said. For Paylor, the pandemic has been a clarifying time.

“I feel that my work [now] is way more impactful than me getting back behind a bar,” said Paylor.

Over the course of her 20-year career in the restaurant industry, Nadia Exama occasionally tried to break into other fields, landing office jobs and customer service roles. But she always gravitated back to restaurants.

“I like interacting with people, meeting new people every day,” said Exama, 37. “I love hospitality and taking care of people.”

There were things she had questioned about working in the industry, however, including the lack of benefits and the reliance on tips. The pandemic, and the way her employers responded to it, brought those doubts to the forefront, she said.

Several months into the pandemic, Exama said she discovered through a Google search that her former place of employment, at an upscale restaurant in Miami, was permanently shut down. “I realized, ‘I don’t think we’re as valued as I thought we were,’” she said, when she realized management hadn’t bothered to reach out to let employees know.

Still, she wanted to stay in the industry.

After months of interviews, Exama finally landed a new role in April at a similar restaurant. She’s happy in her new position: “I’m making good money, it’s a good fit for me right now,” she said.

The story of the recovery is far from over, which means there is still plenty of opportunity to support women reentering the workforce, but also plenty of challenges.

Rebecca Dixon of the National Employment Law Project is particularly worried about what will happen to workers once pandemic-related protections expire. Many eviction and utility payment moratoriums have either already lifted or are expected to lift in the next month. Before the pandemic, landlords filed eviction notices against Black women and Latinas at higher rates than their White and male peers. And 22 states have said they will slash pandemic-related unemployment benefits that have been a “lifeline” to many families of color, particularly those with single mothers, Dixon noted.

This could lead to a “tsunami of debt” in the coming months, said Dixon. Recent research shows women, on average, carry higher levels of debt than men do, and Dixon is concerned what effect months of deferred rent, utility and student loan bills could do to women who have lost crucial unemployment benefits.

Kugler, the Georgetown economist, added that these policies could further destabilize the recovery.

“You need to have the confidence that you’re going to have the customers at the other end to buy your goods and services so that you actually decide to recruit and hire somebody back.”

Like Dixon, Holder, the economist, said she will be paying particular attention to the rate at which Black women return to work. Since they are among the workers most deeply impacted by pandemic inequities, their ability to regain jobs will be a key sign of how equitable the recovery is.

Reentry and retraining programs will also be crucial.

Kugler noted that such programs will be necessary to help retail workers transition into other kinds of work. But the issue touches many Americans who have reevaluated the kind of work they want to do, and the kind of jobs that best support them.

Holder said she sees a major opportunity within President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, a major infrastructure bill that proposes to add on millions of construction and transportation jobs over the next eight years. These jobs traditionally have not hired women but have been a “pathway into the middle class” for many Americans.

“This incredible projection of job creation will not necessarily benefit women who were most negatively affected in terms of employment outcomes during the pandemic,” Holder said. “Will there be efforts to ensure that women are able to gain entry to these jobs, at least?”

And while a partner bill, the American Families Plan, aims to expand women-dominated industries like child care and education, Holder is skeptical that both bills could pass with a nearly gridlocked Congress.

Even though Exama is glad to be back in the restaurant industry, in a post-pandemic world, she hopes restaurant owners “realize that we need to do more to incentivize people to do more to work in the restaurant industry” — namely, by increasing pay and offering benefits to workers, she said.

“I would hope that they would see that they can’t work without employees,” Exama said. “If not, people are going to go elsewhere.”

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