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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Women and the Workplace — What We Learned from COVID

by Emily J. Martin

When COVID-19 hit the United States, the world changed, and women workers were on the front lines of the impact that reverberated through our economy. Women’s jobs made up the majority of the jobs that disappeared overnight, and as schools and childcare providers closed their doors, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters scrambled to navigate what was not just an unprecedented health crisis and an unprecedented economic crisis but also an unprecedented caregiving crisis. Millions of women left the labor force entirely in 2020 and 2021, meaning they were neither working nor looking for work; in February 2021, women’s labor force participation rate hit a low last seen in 1988, losing an entire generation of gains.

In some ways, those months of deep disruption seem far behind us. May 2023 was the 29th month in a row when women gained jobs, and today women hold over 1.5 million more jobs in the United States than they did in February 2020 (though they lag behind men, who gained nearly 2.2 million jobs in the same period). But the pandemic starkly illuminated that our status quo of jerry-rigged childcare arrangements and stingy employment protections was a flimsy foundation for women workers’ success that crumbled quickly under the stress of COVID.

What’s worse, we still haven’t fully made it back to the pre-COVID baseline. While women hold more jobs than they did in February 2020, the population has also grown during this time, and women’s labor force participation rate has still not fully recovered: 58.7 percent of women ages 20 and over are working or looking for work, compared to 59.3 percent prior to the pandemic. Perhaps relatedly, the childcare sector has 50,000 fewer workers today than it did before COVID hit. In addition, many of the supports that have enabled the recovery women have obtained have expired or the federal funds that kept the childcare industry from imploding are about to disappear.

The job loss that flowed from the pandemic was unique compared to other recessions in its impact on women because it was concentrated in the low-paid service jobs where women are overrepresented. Women lost the majority of leisure and hospitality jobs and retail jobs that disappeared in the wake of COVID. They were hard hit by job loss in education and health services and government as well. Women’s rates of unemployment were higher than men’s in the months after March 2020. Black women and Latinas fared worst of all.

The pandemic starkly illuminated the status quo of jerry-rigged childcare arrangements and stingy employment protections for women.

The pandemic starkly illuminated the status quo of jerry-rigged childcare arrangements and stingy employment protections for women.


At the same time, women bore the brunt as schools went remote and childcare evaporated. For some, that meant squeezing homeschooling in at the kitchen table between Zoom calls, hoping for understanding employers. For many others, that meant drastically cutting work hours by necessity and thus losing wages or leaving work entirely. According to polling by my organization, the National Women’s Law Center, in February 2022, well under half of mothers surveyed (42 percent) reported they were able to maintain their usual work hours when their children were not in school in person or childcare was not available, while most fathers could do so (58 percent). The disparities were even sharper for parents of children under five: only 28 percent of mothers of children under five were able to maintain their usual work hours in such a situation, compared to 54 percent of fathers. Relatedly, almost one in six mothers (16 percent), and nearly one in four mothers with children under five (23 percent), reported that they completely stopped working (or looking for work) when their children were not in school or childcare, compared to just 6 percent of fathers and 11 percent of fathers with children under five.

Those impacts were drastic, and they lingered. When we polled women and men about their experience of the pandemic and the impact on their work in early 2022, among parents who had lost or quit a job during the pandemic, only 46 percent of mothers said they have gotten a new job, compared to 76 percent of fathers. And fathers usually fared better after employment disruptions or changes, while mothers usually did not: 68 percent of fathers who lost or quit their job, had reduced hours, or changed jobs during the pandemic said their new position was somewhat or much better than their previous job, compared to only 48 percent of mothers.

But as bad as it was, it could have been much worse. Federal policymakers responded to the pandemic in a host of ways that made a difference. This included massive investments in childcare to stabilize the sector; federal guarantees of paid sick days and paid medical leave for many workers for the first time; and expanded unemployment insurance. Lawmakers significantly expanded the child tax credit in 2021, boosting family incomes through the crisis. And stimulus funds helped employers from restaurants to state and local governments get through the lean times, keeping many employees on and hiring others back when the pandemic ebbed.

All of this did an enormous amount to cushion the impact of COVID and enable a relatively fast economic recovery. Child poverty rates fell to a record low in 2021, to 5.2 percent from 9.7 percent in 2020. Today, unemployment rates are low and real wages have increased in the lowest-paid jobs, where women are overrepresented, as employers competed to attract the workers who had left the labor force during the pandemic. But in addition to the women who remain missing from the labor force and a childcare sector that has not fully recovered, this recovery is fundamentally insufficient if we have just clawed our way back to the deep inequities that predated the pandemic. These were the cracks that ruptured when the earthquake of COVID hit, as insufficient care infrastructure and workplace supports meant that our economy was balanced on women’s self-sacrifice and impossible choices.

The experience of the pandemic has made it clearer than ever that instead of a return to a barely tenable status quo, we need public policies that accommodate and support workers as caregivers. That includes:

  • Permanent investments in childcare. We are still waiting for Congress to recognize that childcare is a public good and that the lack of permanent investments in care infrastructure both harms families and weighs down our economy. Worse, on September 30, we now deal with a childcare cliff, as the relief funding that stabilized the sector through COVID expires, which will leave providers struggling to keep their doors open, as few families can absorb even higher childcare costs; an estimated 3.2 million children are in danger of losing care as a result, with reverberations for the women who rely on that care to work. We need our leaders to take care seriously and ensure that affordable childcare is available to all.
  • Paid family and medical leave and paid sick days. While pandemic relief bills briefly made paid sick days and paid medical leave available to many more workers, those benefits have long expired, returning the United States to the ignominious position of the back of the global pack. All working people deserve to be able to take the time they need to care for themselves and their loved ones, and getting sick or having a baby should never create a financial crisis for a family.
  • Fair work schedules. In many low-paid service jobs, working people find out whether or when they will be called into work with only hours of notice. Organizing your life while managing unstable, unpredictable work hours (and thus unstable, unpredictable income) is hard for anyone, and it is nearly impossible if you have family caregiving responsibilities. Public policy can help ensure that employers provide notice of work schedules, with premium pay for last-minute schedule shifts.
  • Protection against caregiver discrimination. Mothers face a substantial wage gap compared with fathers or women without children, in part because of still common stereotypes that mothers are less competent and less committed as employees. Title VII and state laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment provide some protections, but these protections are strengthened when statutes specifically prohibit discrimination based on caregiver status.
  • Full implementation and enforcement of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and PUMP Act. At the end of 2022, President Joe Biden signed two laws providing important new protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers, which went into effect earlier this year. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for limitations arising out of pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions, while the PUMP Act provides new protections for lactating employees to take breaks to pump breastmilk. In the months to come, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Labor should issue robust implementing regulations and initiate broad enforcement and education efforts.

In addition, the pandemic demonstrated both the economic vulnerability of women working in low-paid jobs and the ability to make a real difference in the lives of these workers and the families who depend on them through policy change. We should take steps to ensure that all working people earn enough to support themselves and their families, including by:

  • Raising the minimum wage and ensuring that tipped workers are paid the full minimum wage. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn’t gone up since 2009, and the tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour was last increased in 1991.
  • Restoring the child tax credit. When poverty data came out in September, it showed a surge in child poverty in 2022 driven by the expiration of the expanded child tax credit, making clear that family poverty is a policy choice. We have the power to change this.
  • Strengthening equal pay protections. Women stand to lose over $400,000 to the gender wage gap over the course of their careers, and for Black women and Latinas, the losses are closer to $1 million. Increasing pay transparency is one way to end pay discrimination because discrimination flourishes in the shadows, as is prohibiting employers from setting pay based on an applicant’s past salary, so pay discrimination doesn’t follow employees from job to job through their career.
  • Opening opportunities for women for high-paying jobs. The Inflation Reduction Act included big federal investments in infrastructure as part of the COVID recovery, and part of creating a recovery that works for everyone is ensuring that women are given an opportunity to be hired in these jobs in traditionally male-dominated industries.

COVID was a flashbulb moment illuminating the deep gender inequities that shape our economy. We now have the opportunity to use that clarity to build a more robust and complete national recovery.

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Emily J. Martin

Vice President for Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center

Emily J. Martin is vice president for Education & Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, where she oversees NWLC’s advocacy, policy, and education efforts to ensure fair treatment and equal opportunity for women and girls at work and at school and to forward policy frameworks that allow them to achieve and succeed.