COVID-19 and the “shecession:” Millions of women drop out of workforce, threatening 50 years of progress
Monica Marling used to work as a waitperson at Avenue Eats in Wheeling, West Virginia. When the pandemic hit, she lost her job, just like millions of others in the service industry. Today, business has returned but Monica hasn’t — her four children have different versions of virtual and hybrid schooling and she and her husband couldn’t make it work so that she could work.
Monica, who shared her story with the Washington Post, said, “The pandemic didn’t get too stressful for my family until online schooling started. That’s when the stress really kicked in. 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.”
Monica is part of the “shecession.” Millions of women have left the workforce – some because their jobs in the hospitality industry evaporated, but many others, particular those with elementary-school age children, because of children who have to learn virtually at home and due to a lack of affordable childcare.
The Post reports that 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. New data released by the Department of Labor on Friday, Nov. 6 showed that there are 2.2 million fewer women working or looking for work now than in January, compared to 1.5 million fewer men. And women have recovered only 39 percent of the jobs they lost in the spring, while men have recovered 58 percent of their jobs. Much of the difference is due to the fact that moms have stopped working to take care of kids.
During the summer, both women and men saw solid gains in jobs as the economy re-opened. Then September arrived – and with it, the beginning of the school year.
In that month alone, 865,000 women nationwide dropped out of the labor force, compared with 216,000 men. In October, men gained back all of those job losses, while only about half of women returned to work.
Alicia Sasser Modestino is an economist at Northeastern University. She told the Post that the job loss among women crosses income categories.
“You look down the barrel of an entire school year of remote and hybrid learning, and you just want to give up,” she said. “Women are dropping out of work, up and down the income scale. We’re seeing surgeons dropping out of the labor market and epidemiologists dropping out during the pandemic.”
Modestino moved her third-grade daughter from virtual learning in public school to a private school offering in-person classes. But, she told the Post, 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 is really a 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.:
Although stimulus checks would help, that might not be a long-term solution. So what is the solution? First, COVID-19 needs to be contained. Second, schools need to re-open when they can safely do so. But those two things by themselves will not be enough – we need to systemically address America’s latest crisis, which is a lack of affordable, suitable childcare.
Last month, the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and YWCA USA jointly released a research paper entitled “America’s Recovery from the 2020 ‘Shecession’: Building a Female Future of Childcare and Work.”
The report, which details how challenges and systemic inequities are contributing to this year’s economic crisis and the disproportionate impact the economic crisis has on women, offers policymakers a blueprint for American economic recovery based on the the expansion of high quality, affordable, and accessible childcare together with a concrete plan to prepare the female workforce for secure jobs in the future.
The authors of the report explain how national and local policymakers have failed to identify women’s economic security concerns, despite overwhelming support among women, around key areas like childcare, equal pay and fair workplaces. They argue that the country’s childcare system is failing parents, children, childcare workers and the American economy.
“Social and economic policies have failed to keep pace with the advancement of women in terms of job access, and 2020 stands to wipe out all of the gains women have made in the last 50 years,” said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, the LBJ School’s Associate Dean for Civic Engagement and the lead author of the research paper.
Alejandra Y. Castillo, CEO of YWCA and the paper’s other author, added, “Our country is finally waking up to the realities that women have always known – that childcare is intrinsic to our national economy and well-being, and that job security is critical. The concerns of women should be the concerns of policymakers at every level. This is a watershed moment, and an opportunity to build a future where women, families, and America can thrive beyond COVID-19.”
Even when unemployment was low, the lack of quality affordable childcare made it hard for women to advance in the workplace. Now, the pandemic’s stresses have devastated childcare providers, and childcare will have to be rebuilt, at a cost estimated at $50 billion. The coronavirus underscores the “Shecession” report’s point that childcare is essential if women are going to work, and that women’s employment is needed for the economic growth that will pull us out of this recession. Repairing childcare now in a COVID relief package will support recovery now and build towards sustaining “long-term economic resiliency,” as the report notes.