The pandemic drove women out of the workforce. Will they come back?


For Haley Stomp, a 46-year-old in Des Moines, Iowa, the coronavirus toppled the elaborate balancing act she and her husband had set up to take care of their two boys. After spending hours last fall looking at their finances, figuring out how long they could go without her income as a senior vice president of marketing at a global multinational company, Stomp took a sabbatical at the start of the year and later decided not to return.

“I just couldn’t picture myself going back,” she said, “into the constant meetings.”

In the months since she left, she’s gone through different stages — at times wondering if she’ll ever be motivated enough to return to work, or more recently, getting excited again to have a job once she finds something with the right amount of flexibility.

“Covid took some of that fear away, that fear of change, because we were already going through so much change,” Stomp said. “It was a time to take some chances.”

The barriers to returning to the labor force have proven particularly acute for mothers, who disproportionately shoulder caretaking responsibilities in the U.S. and who began taking on the added burden of helping kids through virtual school when schools were closed because of the pandemic.

Women’s labor force participation dropped sharply when the economy first shut down, a likely reflection of their disproportionate representation in service industry sectors that were decimated by closures. Their participation rate started to recover over the summer, but then it dropped again in the fall when the school year began and more kids needed help with online learning. About 44 percent of women said they were the only one in their household providing care when schools and day cares shut down, according to one study, compared to just 14 percent of men.

Mothers with school-age children are now regaining jobs more slowly compared to 2019 than those without dependent children, according to an analysis by Misty Heggeness, principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau. And a pair of University of Pennsylvania economists found that not only did child care closures last year increase joblessness among mothers of young children in the short-term, those unemployment effects grew larger over time and persisted even after shutdown orders were lifted.

“We have got to make strides, big strides in terms of providing child care so that women can return to the workforce,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

Speier and other Democratic lawmakers and economists have begun to warn that without sweeping federal intervention — particularly investments in accessible, affordable child care and policies mandating paid family leave — women’s workforce participation rate could lag for years and might never fully recover to its pre-2020 level. Investing in child care would have the double-barreled benefit of employing more workers in the industry, where women hold a staggering 95 percent of all jobs.

President Joe Biden has proposed large-scale investments in new policies to support children and families, including some $650 billion to make child care programs more affordable, implement universal prekindergarten and create the country’s first national paid family and medical leave program. But Republicans and even some Democrats have criticized the cost of Biden’s proposals, with some suggesting that the economy is recovering well on its own and doesn’t need more aid.

In the meantime, data show that in the past few months, “moms are kind of pulling back,” said Heggeness of the Census Bureau, who has broken down Labor Department data to examine how mothers living with dependent children are faring compared to women overall. “Some of them, it appears, are struggling to stay actively working.”

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