Who did COVID-19 boot from the workforce — and what does that mean for families?

The journal Gender and Society looks at pandemic-related school closures and what that means for employment

Getting children physically back into their classrooms is key to providing women with the work opportunities they want and the tangible rewards needed for family well-being and stability. And it’s crucial for economic recovery, too.

The pandemic has driven women who are responsible to care for children or other relatives and people of color from the workplace more than other groups. That pattern holds true not just in America, but around the globe. And many in those groups, who already experienced higher-than-average levels of unemployment, have seen their work lives and finances decimated.

“If you want to avoid the negative consequences of women being pushed out of the labor force, social policy ought to focus on getting schools open first, perhaps before bars and restaurants even,” said Barbara J. Risman, editor of the journal Gender and Society, which is dedicating its forthcoming April issue to national and international studies of COVID-19’s impact on work.

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At the same time, women globally have also shouldered more responsibility for housework, child care and home schooling compared to men, whether they were employed or not. Sometimes, those responsibilities directly led them to reduce work hours or leave jobs entirely. The impact of lost wages hinges largely on government policies that provide financial supports or that reopen schools.

The findings are largely expected, but are now quantifiable. Job loss was higher among women from racial and ethnic minority groups, compared to whites, said Risman, who’s also a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In December, in fact, women of color accounted for nearly all jobs lost, while unemployment decreased for white women.

“You can see there are some things that are happening everywhere,” Risman told the Deseret News, which got a pre-publication look at the research. “And some things that are really different, depending on the kind of governmental support that families receive. I think that’s crucial, because sometimes we think, ‘This is just what happens.’ When you look cross-nationally, you see things are really different based on the kind of policies and the opportunities available to families.”

The story of women and work has played out over the course of the pandemic, as millions of American women reduced their hours or quit their jobs when schools and child care centers closed so they could care for and supervise their children. Even when men working from home increased the amount of time they spent on caregiving and household tasks, they did less than women in the pandemic, Risman said.

“It is women who leave the workforce when there is no place for their children to go,” she said.

Kyla Ireland holds her 3-week-old baby Eli Jackson before going on a walk with Kyla’s mother Kimberly Ireland in Las Vegas on April 17, 2020. A walk around the neighborhood is one of the rare times they leave the house during the coronavirus outbreak. Kimberly Ireland was laid off from her job as a bell desk dispatcher at the Mirage casino-resort, where she worked for a decade. | John Locher, Associated Press

Here, there, everywhere

In one of the studies, researchers created what they call the Elementary School Operating Status database and linked it with the U.S. Current Population Survey to compare parental employment in fall of 2019, pre-pandemic, with numbers from fall 2020, while COVID-19 was raging.

One of the authors, Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington in St. Louis, told the Deseret News that their survey of 26 states found the gender gap in employment grew substantially in states with online learning, compared to others. They didn’t find a significant gap with combination of remote and in-person learning called “hybrid” instruction. She said they may discover that as they look at more states and school districts. The goal is to broaden the database to include all states in a format other researchers can use, too.

The study was co-authored by researchers at the University of Melbourne, the Maryland Population Research Center and the University of North Texas.

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They singled out three states as examples of various education models. Maryland did classes online only, and mothers’ employment dropped 18% between fall 2019 and fall 2020. “That’s incredibly dramatic,” Risman said.

In Texas, most grade schoolers had the option of in-person class, while New York was largely a hybrid combination. Neither had the same drop-off in female employment as Maryland, though the researchers suspect hybrid classes might result in more mothers reducing employment, once the database they created includes all 50 states.

Reopening schools is fundamentally important to reducing the gender gap that disadvantages women in the workplace and reduces household incomes, Collins said, noting the longer women are out of work, the harder it is to recover.

Who works in the family is often an economic decision that favors the man, if he makes more money. While it makes sense on a family level, “it has disastrous individual consequences for that mom trying to get back into work. And when you aggregate that over thousands and millions of women making similar decisions as a result of preexisting structural gender inequalities, what we get is widening inequalities in the context of the pandemic,” Collins said.

“We have to think about child care and school as fundamental parts of the infrastructure,” she said. “Parents can’t do paid work if there’s not a place for their children to be safe.”

Work is not the only place gendered inequality shows up, either. Researchers Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced, and her colleague Tashelle Wright found that barriers faced by women of color, particularly Black women, widened inequality in households, the workforce and health care.

Policy matters

While researchers point out that women who leave the workforce may be disadvantaged for years to come because of lost wages, promotions they didn’t get and gaps in work history that make it harder to reenter the job market at the level they left it, a study from Canada found a quick policy response gets women back on track careerwise.

While researchers found gender gaps at work widened initially when women went home to fulfill caregiving responsibilities, they also showed that when the government reopened schools fast in Canada, women who had college degrees quickly returned to their previous employment levels.

It was a bit slower for less-educated parents, but their employment has started to bounce back. According to an overview of the journal studies by Risman and Irma Mooi-Reci, of the University of Melbourne, Australia, that showed “when employment barriers eased, so did the gender employment gap, but that prioritizing affordable childcare is critical to ensure recovery,” as is returning kids to classes.

The special issue on COVID-19 looked at patterns in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India and elsewhere to show that housework and child-rearing remain largely the responsibility of females. And when that means going home or reducing paid work hours, it is women who take that leap. But it’s also unpaid work at home for which women assume primary responsibility.

In Australia, single moms were actually less stressed by COVID-19 and employment issues than married moms were because they were more likely to have a government subsidy.

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In the study of families in India, unemployment was again higher among women than men. Risman and Mooi-Reci write that “joblessness resulted in limited access to food, reduction of daily meals, high debt levels, economic and emotional distress and erosion of livelihoods. Government relief packages failed to reach and provide women with cash relief, leaving them socially dependent.”

Economic dependence — whether on programs or individuals — narrows one’s life options a lot, Risman said, noting the problem spills down to those dependent on the woman, too. Her own earlier research has also shown that besides narrowing the goods and services those children have available, a mother’s economic dependence on others narrows a daughter’s view of her own future. And children of either sex who have seen their mother work are also less sexist.

Women of color are also more likely to be in “essential” but low-paying jobs, like nursing assistants or health aides, Pirtle said. She calls it “disposability. They’re essential workers not being paid a lot and who have a high risk of exposure” to COVID-19.

In the pandemic, Pirtle said, “women of color fare worse than men of color and white women.” She was shocked, she added, that home health aides were not given help in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security — or CARES — Act, presumably because officials feared if they could afford to quit their jobs, they would.

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