For millions of working women, the coronavirus pandemic has delivered a rare and ruinous one-two-three punch.
First, the parts of the economy that were smacked hardest and earliest by job losses were ones where women dominate — restaurants, retail businesses and health care.
Then a second wave began taking out local and state government jobs, another area where women outnumber men.
The third blow has, for many, been the knockout: the closing of child care centers and the shift to remote schooling. That has saddled working mothers, much more than fathers, with overwhelming household responsibilities.
“We’ve never seen this before,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan and the mother of a second grader and a sixth grader. Recessions usually start by gutting the manufacturing and construction industries, where men hold most of the jobs, she said.
The impact on the economic and social landscape is both immediate and enduring.
The triple punch is not just pushing women out of jobs they held, but also preventing many from seeking new ones. For an individual, it could limit prospects and earnings over a lifetime. Across a nation, it could stunt growth, robbing the economy of educated, experienced and dedicated workers.
Inequality in the home — in terms of household and child care responsibilities — influences inequality in the workplace, Misty L. Heggeness, a principal economist at the Census Bureau, concluded in a working paper on the pandemic’s impact for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Without a more comprehensive system of support, she said, “mothers will forever be vulnerable to career scarring during any major crisis like this pandemic.”
The latest jobs report from the Labor Department showed that some of the damage was reversed last month as the service industry revived, nudging down the jobless rate for women to 6.5 percent, slightly below men’s. But there were still 4.5 million fewer women employed in October than there were a year ago, compared with 4.1 million men.
And according to the Census Bureau, a third of the working women 25 to 44 years old who are unemployed said the reason was child care demands. Only 12 percent of unemployed men cited those demands.
Laci Oyler has felt that pressure. Her husband, employed by a large printing company, was already working from home when the pandemic shuttered day care and schools in Milwaukee. But after two days of taking care of their two young sons, “he said, ‘Absolutely no way,’” Ms. Oyler explained. So she cut her weekly hours as a mental health counselor for Alverno College, a small Catholic institution, to five from 32.
In August, when she learned that public schools would continue to offer only online classes for the fall, Ms. Oyler decided she had little choice but to take an unpaid leave.
This month, she decided to resign.
“Work is so much more than what you’re taking home as payment,” Ms. Oyler said. “But when you look at that bottom line of risk versus reward, it doesn’t seem worth it,” she added, referring to the cost of child care combined with the possibility of coronavirus infection for her or her children.
As a licensed professional, Ms. Oyler does not expect to have difficulty returning to the work force when she is ready. But for most working women, dropping out to take care of children or other family members exacts a sizable toll, several studies have shown. Rejoining is hard, and if women do, they generally earn less and have less security. And the longer someone is out of work, the tougher it is to get back in.
Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard, said this was the first recession where the economy was so intertwined with the network of child care.
“During the Great Depression, no one cared about the care sector,” she said. “Women weren’t in the labor force, and they weren’t supposed to be.”
One reason that Congress started giving financial assistance to poor households headed by women in the 1930s, under a program originally titled Aid to Dependent Children, was so they could stay home with their children and not compete with men for jobs, Ms. Goldin said.
Only during World War II, when women were urgently needed in factories and offices to replace men who were in the military, did the government establish a far-reaching federally subsidized network of nurseries and child care centers in nearly every state. Once the war ended, so did the support.
“You cannot have a contented mother working in a war factory if she is worrying about her children, and you cannot have children running wild in the streets without a bad effect on the coming generations,” Senator Carl Hayden, an Arizona Democrat, testified in 1943.
Women make up roughly half of the country’s work force. They range from entry-level to professional, they live in urban, suburban and rural areas, and they often care for toddlers and teenagers. But the burdens of the pandemic-induced recession have fallen most heavily on low-income and minority women and single mothers.
Members of these overlapping groups often have the most unpredictable schedules, and the fewest benefits, and are least able to afford child care. They fill most of the essential jobs that cannot be done from home and, therefore, carry the most risk for exposure to the virus. At the same time, they make up a disproportionate share of the service industries that have lost the most jobs. The jobless rate is 9.2 percent for Black women and 9 percent for Hispanic women.
When the pandemic caused housecleaning jobs to dry up, Andrea Poe was able to find cleaning work at a resort in Orange Beach, Ala., about a 45-minute drive from Pensacola, Fla., where she and her 14-year-old daughter, Cheyenne Poe, had moved in with an older daughter, her fiancé and their five children.
The families were behind in the rent and threatened with eviction when Hurricane Sally ripped through the coast in September. To escape the floods, they piled into two cars, drove to Biloxi, Miss., and spent five nights in a Walmart parking lot.
Now Ms. Poe and Cheyenne, who has turned 15, are in Peoria, Ariz., living in a room in her mother’s trailer.
She said she was applying for jobs every day, so far without luck. And the bills keep coming. Ms. Poe has missed two consecutive loan payments on her car and worries that it will be repossessed.
“I’m just hoping my unemployment checks come through so my car doesn’t get taken away,” she said. “If I lose my car, I’ll never be able to get a job.”
Women with more resources are in a better position, but they struggle in other ways.
When the pandemic ripped through Seattle and compelled Kenna Smith, 37, to work from home, she initially saw one upside — a chance to spend more time with her 3-year-old son.
“At first, I thought I’d just focus on my child,” said Ms. Smith, who had just started a branding and design company, Wildforth Creative. “It was fun for a while, but then the stress was intense.”
Like many families who were worried about the risk of infection or short of money and space, Ms. Smith and her husband let their son’s nanny go. Her husband, project manager for a general contractor, worked out of their bedroom.
“I’m not sure why it totally fell on me,” Ms. Smith said of child care. “I’m out in the living room, dining room area with a whole bunch of toys strewn about, with my laptop, trying to run my business.
“I was wanting to work and wanting my business to succeed so badly,” she said. “I didn’t realize. …” She paused, interrupted by a voice: “Mommy, I want some applesauce.”
The couple recently decided to hire a part-time nanny, concluding that despite the expense, it was the only way both could keep working. (Ms. Smith’s sister is also helping out.)
From 2015 until the pandemic, women’s increasing participation in the work force was a primary driver of the economy’s expansion, said Ms. Stevenson, the Michigan economist. “It’s why the economy grew the way it did, why employers could keep hiring month after month,” she said.
Since February, women’s participation in the labor force has been falling, with the biggest decreases among women without college degrees who have children.
Changes forced on women by the pandemic elicit a mixture of anxiety and hope.
Many women worry that the changes will sharply narrow women’s choices and push them unwillingly into the unpaid role of full-time homemaker.
And the impact could stretch over generations, paring women’s retirement savings, and reducing future earnings of children now in low-income households.
“We are creating inequality 20 years down the line that is even greater than we have today,” said Ms. Stevenson, who was a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “This is how inequality begets inequality.”
Yet there is also the possibility that the mounting pressures could create momentum to complete the unfinished project of fully integrating women into the work force by providing a system of family support — like affordable child care and paid parental and sick leave.
“I think we’re really at a crossroads,” said Julie Kashen, director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation and one of the authors of a new report on the pandemic and working women. “We’ve never built a workplace that worked for people with caregiving responsibilities.”
Gillian Friedman contributed reporting.