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.