The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virtual schooling has largely forced moms, not dads, to quit work. It will hurt the economy for years.

More than 2 million women had dropped out of the labor force as of October. The percent of American women working is the lowest since 1988.

An Orange County Public Schools sixth-grader participates in a virtual class from home in Orlando in August. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

In late October, Courtney Allen got the call she had been waiting for: A school district asked if she could come back as a substitute teacher. Allen desperately needed the money as she was getting only $125 a week in unemployment benefits. But she had to turn down the job.

Her kindergartner and first-grade sons are still at home all day, learning virtually. Allen is part of a wave of women having to make difficult decisions that will affect family finances, as well as the broader U.S. economy, for years to come.

The pandemic recession has been dubbed a “she-session” because it has hurt women far worse than men. The share of women working or looking for work has fallen to the lowest level since 1988, wiping out decades of hard-fought gains in the workplace.

On Friday, the Labor Department’s jobs report showed that the economy has gained back just over half of the jobs lost in March and April, but the situation remains dire for women. There are 2.2 million fewer women working or looking for work now than in January, vs. 1.5 million fewer men, according to the Labor Department data.

The covid-19 recession is the most unequal in U.S. history

Put another way, women have recovered only about 39 percent of the big drop in the labor force they suffered in the spring, while men have recovered 58 percent of their jobs. Much of the difference in these diverging fortunes for men and women boils down to moms having to stop working to take care of kids.

As a single mom, Allen, 32, said she has no good options right now.

“I’m stuck in a bad spot,” said Allen, who spends most of her days helping her sons with homework sheets at the kitchen table in the home she rents in Malone, N.Y. “I would pay more for a babysitter than what I would make going back to work."

When the pandemic first escalated in the spring, women lost more jobs than men because women are more likely to work in restaurants, hair salons, hotels and retail stores — the industries hardest hit as people stayed home. Over the summer, both men and women saw solid gains as the economy reopened and some jobs returned.

But that changed in September. Just as the school year began, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force, compared with 216,000 men. In October, men gained back all their modest September losses, while only about half of women returned.

“You look down the barrel of an entire school year of remote and hybrid learning, and you just want to give up,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist at Northeastern University. “Women are dropping out of work, up and down the income scale. We’re seeing surgeons dropping out of the labor market and epidemiologists drop out during the pandemic. ”

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Parents, especially mothers, have been forced to choose between their children and their jobs. A Washington Post analysis found an especially large employment dip among mothers of elementary-school-aged children. These moms were counting on their children being in school so they could work. They didn’t have other arrangements, and they have found that their kids can’t handle hours of virtual lessons on their own.

The challenge for the next president is how to deal with this “she-session” crisis. For years, policymakers and political leaders have debated how to help blue-collar men who were losing jobs. Now the problem is women.

There are rising calls for the government to prioritize reopening in-person schooling as many other nations around the world, including Canada, have done.

Consumer spending is not bouncing back very fast

“Priority number one should be kids back into school,” said Kathryn Anne Edwards, a labor economist at the Rand Corp. who has been studying women’s careers. “The younger the kid, the more of a priority it is because they are less likely to be able to do school on their own.”

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled a list of essential industries and workers, educators and child-care providers were notably absent.

Economists have said the best way to help the overall economy is to control the spread of the coronavirus. Covid-19 cases have spiked in the United States to more than 100,000 a day. The increase is not only straining the nation’s hospitals, it is also threatens to stall the economic recovery or cause a backslide as people curb their shopping.

Many of the job gains women made in October were in hospitality and retail. There’s growing concern that those jobs could go away again with the rising caseloads.

“Fifty-nine percent of women’s job gains in October came from leisure and hospitality. Will those gains hold if covid cases stay high this winter?” said Michael Madowitz, an economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, who has been tracking women’s labor force participation closely.

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Monica Marling of Bellaire, Ohio, has been unable to return to her waitressing job since the pandemic began. In the spring, Avenue Eats in Wheeling, W.Va., just over the state line, didn’t need her as business was slow. By the fall, Marling faced a different problem: She has four kids, and they all had different versions of virtual and hybrid schooling. She and her husband could not make it work.

“The pandemic didn’t get too stressful for my family until online schooling started. That’s when the stress really kicked in,” Marling said. “I’ve started to take steps to pull my two youngest out of public school to home-school them. The online program is just not working for my family.”

Marling, 37, says she’s making the right choice for her family now. Her husband, a factory millwright, was deemed an essential worker and has had steady employment throughout the crisis, a huge help to the family budget. But they still worry about the loss of her income.

Women who take a year off to care for children have historically had a harder time getting back into the workforce, and they suffer lower earnings and retirement savings throughout their lives compared with workers who don’t. There’s also a hit to the overall U.S. economy, as fewer people working results in less household income available to spend.

Even before the pandemic, the United States lagged behind many other advanced nations — including France, Germany, Canada, Britain, Australia and Japan — in women’s labor force participation. Now that gap could be even larger.

The U.S. used to be a world leader in women working. Not anymore.

Modestino, the economist, moved her third-grade daughter from virtual learning in public schools to a private school offering in-person classes. But she is well aware that many families can’t afford to do that. She is urging Congress to pursue another round of stimulus checks specifically for families with children.

“Lots of families can’t even afford to pay someone to supervise their kids so they can go to work. This a really fixable problem,” she said. “You can cut $1,200 or $2,000 checks for families with kids to be able to keep parents going to work. They can take that money and spend it on a babysitter or an after-school program.”

Some employers are also stepping up to help parents, especially moms, who otherwise might quit work. Some companies have begun providing backup child-care options or even a special child-care service where parents can drop off kids to have them supervised during the school day.

Allen, the single mom in Upstate New York, is desperate for any additional help.

“A lot of people I know are waiting on this stimulus. That would be amazing,” Allen said. “We just need something to get us through until there’s a vaccine.”