Over the past year, Clark’s schedule has become even less flexible, as virtual schooling dominates her day. Her husband’s in-person sales job requires him to travel. Someone has to stay home to watch the children — and child care is just too expensive.
“It’s either we’re 100 percent at work or 100 percent a parent,” said Clark, who has seen very few openings in the marketing and design sector that would allow remote work. “I was looking for something remote so then I could do my job and not have to worry about who’s getting them, when they get off the bus.”
Clark’s predicament illustrates just how difficult it is for many women to return to the 4.5 million jobs they lost during the coronavirus crisis. (The equivalent number for men is 3.7 million.)
The pandemic recession hit women particularly hard. In the months after the spring 2020 shutdowns, 11.3 million jobs held by women vanished almost immediately, as women are overrepresented in the retail, restaurant, travel and hospitality sectors. Plus, lack of child care and closed schools meant many women, including those who didn’t lose their jobs, had to take on the bulk of caring for children.
But now, even as those industries tentatively reopen, job growth for women is so low that, at April’s rate of just 161,000 jobs added per month, it would take 28 months to regain the pandemic losses — longer once population growth is taken into account. Women’s struggles are partly reflected in April’s disappointing jobs report overall, a release that muddled America’s triumphant recovery narrative and revealed that the labor market is stuck in limbo.
Women and economists say the slow job growth is not only because of expanded unemployment benefits making lower-paid service-sector jobs undesirable or a general worker shortage. They say it’s also just more difficult to go back to work right now, particularly for women.
It’s not only the pandemic, though the novel coronavirus remains a threat in many parts of the country. It’s the problems the pandemic has compounded: unaffordable child care, unsafe working conditions, low wages, in-person work requirements and the inconsistency of unemployment insurance.
Child care is a full-time job
A lack of consistent child care highlights intersecting barriers made worse by the pandemic: Schools closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and working parents navigated virtual schooling in between working from home or struggling to pay the bills amid job losses or pay cuts.
The cost of child care hit another all-time high in 2020, rising 2.2 percent even as parents were forced to slash their overall child-care spending as the economy cratered, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Costs rose due to the safety hazards of gathering in person during a pandemic, as well as a provider workforce that plunged 36 percent in the early days of the crisis and remains reduced.
Working mothers told The Washington Post that to return to work, they need schools to reopen, the flexibility to work remotely and higher wages to afford early child care. Studies back this up. In a pandemic-era analysis of more than 30,000 Americans, university researchers found that women want more work-from-home days than men (49 percent of the time vs. 43 percent), but their employers plan to offer them fewer work-from-home days (19 percent vs. 23 percent). The working paper was written by Jose Maria Barrero of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Steven J. Davis of the University of Chicago.
In Texas, when schools reopened last fall, full-time work outside the house increased by about 20 percent as parents were freed from some child-care responsibilities, according to a recent working paper by University of Kentucky economists.
Some pre-kindergartens and schools are still closed or operate on hybrid schedules because of the continued threat of coronavirus infection, but President Biden’s goal to vaccinate children ages 12 and up by the fall could free some parents from some child-care and safety concerns.
“Roughly five million women still can’t work due to child care issues,” Vice President Harris said in a statement on Friday, decrying what she called “the mass exodus of women from the workforce.”
“This reflects not just the ongoing acute child care crisis but long-standing structural barriers to families having access to affordable [child care] options,” she said.
Addressing these gaps is one reason the White House has pitched a major spending package that would, among other things, allocate more than $200 billion to help families such as the Clarks afford child care.
Women are bearing the brunt of the economy’s messy reopening
The economy has undergone a major upheaval in the past few months: It is transitioning from a goods-driven, pandemic-era economy, in which the service industry struggled, to a new normal — whatever that ends up being. It is likely to be the second-biggest economic reshuffling since World War II, behind only last year’s coronavirus crisis. And given how many women will have to upend their lives in short order for the economy to reopen, it’s natural that the transition will take longer than expected and possibly hit a few snags.
Things are moving very fast, said Nick Bunker, an economist at the job site Indeed, warning that “when things are moving fast, they’re not going to be orderly.”
Over the past few months, as newly vaccinated consumers feel more comfortable venturing out to eat at restaurants or taking long-delayed vacations, job postings on Indeed have skyrocketed in service sectors such as hospitality and tourism, child care, and cleaning and sanitation, Bunker said. All over the country, restaurants and hotels are reporting that they cannot find workers, a problem that has posed challenges for the White House.
But these industries also demand an enormous amount from workers and pay relatively little, and the pandemic shutdowns have afforded millions of workers time to ponder their career choices.
As a server at a Mediterranean restaurant in New York, Dominique Brown’s hours were always in flux. Customers were often disrespectful, she said, despite all the little things she did to make their night out feel special. She felt like management cared little. When the pandemic hit, Brown, who is also an actress, found herself jobless.
Even amid the desperation borne out of months of unemployment during a global economic meltdown, Brown decided she was unwilling to return to the restaurant industry, which she said made her feel dehumanized.
“I just felt it was an industry that doesn’t value people. I’m an actress and an artist first. My survival jobs are on the side,” said Brown. “It took a toll on me.”
Now she works as a concierge for a property manager in D.C. Unlike at the restaurant, she gets consistent hours, benefits and paid time off. She works from 4 p.m. to midnight, so she can spend mornings and days helping her niece, whom she cares for full time, through remote school. The pressure to hustle and provide spurred her to go into business as an acting coach: She helps other actors prepare for auditions and various opportunities.
“I feel like I get better respect and get treated like a human,” Brown said. “I don’t feel disposable. I’m making stable money. I think it’s a good trade-off.”
Shelly Ortiz, 25, has been working in food service since she was 15, but the pandemic brought her to a breaking point. Putting up with rude customers became a matter of survival. Tips plunged. Many flouted mask mandates and told her the virus was a hoax, even as the number of infections spiked. When men she served would say things like, “Pull down your mask and let me know how much I should tip you,” she felt like she had no choice but to deal with it, she said, lest she lose the little money that was coming in.
“I lost a lot of self-worth during that time,” Ortiz said. “Feeling so disposable really did a number on my mental health.”
In July, after she wasn’t told about a coronavirus exposure at work, the harsh realities of the pandemic set in anew: She didn’t want to risk her life while others pretended things were normal. It gave her the push she needed to quit the restaurant industry and go all in on her passion, documentary filmmaking. Ortiz went back to school and is stringing together short-term video projects on the side to support her and her partner, who is a high school teacher.
“The pandemic made me realize that I had to adjust,” Ortiz said.
The safety net has helped ease, and perhaps slow, the transition
Marianne Wanamaker, an economist at the University of Tennessee, blames it on the interaction between the chaos of this economic transition and the predictability of federal benefits.
Women are hesitant to return to the labor force because they don’t know what the near future will hold, said Wanamaker, who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Trump administration, and thanks to generous federal benefits and an abundance of job openings, there’s no need for women to rush back before they’re ready.
“There’s no urgency on the part of people who are unemployed to get back into the labor force, because there’s no evidence that they won’t be able to find a job when they’re ready,” Wanamaker said.
Arindrajit Dube, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has consulted with the British government on minimum-wage effects, has been analyzing new Census Bureau survey data for evidence that more-generous unemployment benefits have been incentivizing workers to stay home. He still hasn’t found any widespread evidence in the data, at least through the end of March.
One of those hesitant workers is Sara Hambleton. When the pandemic hit, she compared the drop in customers at her family’s Elkton, Md., boarding kennel to slamming into a brick wall. She had just finished unpaid maternity leave and returned to her job as a manager. The business watches pets for clients who travel, but coronavirus restrictions led to canceled trips, which led to cancellations at the kennel and Hambleton’s unemployment.
Hambleton lives with her boyfriend and her 19-month-old, and has relied on wavering unemployment benefits since last May.
She can’t find another job that will allow her to bring her daughter with her like she could at her family’s kennel. Although her managing experience is transferrable and she has a degree in photography, it’s a struggle to find a job that pays enough for her to pay for child care — especially a day care that takes enough coronavirus precautions, she said.
“If I could afford day care, I would. I’d love for her to be able to play with kids her own age. But around here, it’s just too expensive,” she said. “I can’t go get a job where I’m making $800 a week.”
She plans to return to her managing job at the kennel once business picks up again to pay employees, but there’s no telling when business travel will bounce back to the point that customers start boarding their animals again.
Some jobs won’t come back
In some cases, some of the missing jobs that women used to hold won’t be coming back. The remote or hybrid models of work ushered in by the pandemic — and the difficulty in finding new employees, particularly women who want to return in person full time — will have ripple effects on businesses built around serving chai lattes or chopped salad to the daily waves of office commuters.
“There are a fair amount of restaurants or food-service positions in downtown business centers,” Bunker said. “If we do see a sustained increase in work-at-home, whether that is remote or even just people working from home a couple of days a week, that will reduce demand for a lot of those restaurants and bars in downtown districts.”
Venorica Tucker calls her former bosses every week, asking if it’s time to come back yet. The 72-year-old had juggled Capitol Hill catering jobs, most recently at the House of Representatives, for nearly 30 years when she was laid off in March 2020. She loved the job. She got to feed heads of state in exchange for a front-row seat to their discussions and power-brokering.
Always the one co-workers would come to for advice, Tucker organized a group of employees that meets over Zoom at least once a week to puzzle through searching for jobs, securing unemployment benefits and finding medical care after health insurance ended. She doesn’t know when her former bosses will start hiring again or if she’ll get a call when they do.
Helping her co-workers and her two grandchildren keeps her busy, but the uncertainty weighs on Tucker. Her unemployment benefits don’t go far, but when her grandkids need something, she steps up anyway.
“Most people don’t want to sit home and collect unemployment,” Tucker said. “Most people want to have a purpose in life and experience new things; no one wants to sit home and just watch TV all day and worry about how they’re going to pay their bills. It’s not what anybody I know wants to do. No one is that lazy.”