A Year from the Start of the Women’s Recession, 2 Million Women Are Still Out of the Workforce

About 165,000 women left the workforce in April as the economic recovery sputters. Unemployment rates continue to be higher for women of color.

Originally published by The 19th

One year from the worst economic slump for women in American history, women workers are still struggling to return back to pre-pandemic employment levels as the economic recovery continues to sputter. 

In April, 165,000 women left the workforce, meaning they stopped looking for work altogether. About 355,000 men joined it, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy overall added 266,000 jobs — far below projections that April would see nearly a million net jobs added. 

“Women’s re-entry into full engagement with the labor market — they are being held back. It is not the case that women are holding back the economy,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

The uphill climb began in April 2020, when some 2.8 million women left the labor force, marking the worst loss of employment for women in a single month since the U.S. started tracking the figures in the 1940s. The losses continued after that, and though 1.6 million have since rejoined the workforce, the U.S. economy is still short about 2 million women workers compared with February 2020. 

The slack on the recovery is due in large part to the continued impact of the pandemic and the progress of vaccinations. Just under a third of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. The jobs report released by BLS surveys households and businesses during the second week of April, therefore the data doesn’t reflect any changes after April 19, when vaccinations became available for all American adults, said Kathryn Anne Edwards, an economist with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank.

“The same thing is true now that was true the last April jobs report we had, which is the economy will not recover until the pandemic is contained, and economic growth is not going to cure the pandemic,” Edwards said. 

Vaccinations are one piece of the puzzle. The others are access to the social structures that help workers — especially women — go to work, including child care, paid leave and school reopenings. 

“It’s not just the pace of vaccinations, but the fact that children aren’t vaccinated. Not just that the economy is starting to reopen, but there are insufficient child care slots available. Are kids going to be able to go to camp? What are people doing with their children during the summer? Are they going to be able to start a job right now, knowing that you know school in whatever form is existing right now is about to be over?” Bauer said. 

Those stressors are particularly clear in the unemployment rates for women of color. They remain high at 8.6 percent for Black women and 7.5 percent for Latinas. For White women, the rate has dropped to 4.8 percent. Black men have the highest unemployment rate of any racial group at 10.2 percent. 

Black women and Latinas are more likely to be primary breadwinners in their families and more likely to work in frontline jobs. But without access to child care — the child care workforce has shrunk by 15 percent since the start of the pandemic — many of those women remain out of work.  

“This crisis has emphasized the ways in which care is the backbone of the economy and we cannot engage in other economic activity without first making sure ourselves and our families are cared for,” said Kate Bahn, the director of labor market policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

In some areas, the recovery did inch a little bit forward in April. 

Of the 266,000 net jobs added in the economy, 161,000 were held by women. That’s thanks in part to increases in employment in the women-dominated hospitality industry, which saw the largest gains last month, adding about 331,000 jobs. Hospitality lost nearly half of all its positions in April 2020, helping to set off the first women’s recession. While the industry has seen gains in recent months, it is still down 2.8 million jobs from February 2020. 

Other fields that employ women, including local government education and social assistance, also saw gains last month. The child day care services sector added 12,000 net jobs. 

Still, Edwards said, “There are severe constraints on the labor market and this report does not show that those constraints have been lifted. We haven’t seen the pandemic burden off of workers’ shoulders.”

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