The September unemployment numbers provided a lot of bad news for the economy overall: decreasing rate of new jobs being created, rising number of permanent layoffs and a persistently high unemployment rate. The most shocking number from September’s report, however, was the number of women who left the labor market. More than 800,000 women have given up trying to find a job. During the pandemic recession, women’s labor force participation – the percentage of women holding jobs or looking for jobs – is lower than at any point since the late 1980’s. That marks a generation of progress lost in just six months.
This dramatic drop in women’s labor force participation is just the latest reflection of how poorly women have fared in the pandemic recession. Looking back to the beginning of the pandemic, we can see that women’s unemployment rate has been consistently higher than men’s as industries with predominantly female workforces have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. These alarming statistics exist in the context of many reports of how much harder it has become for women to balance their job and caregiving responsibilities. How many women are doing double duty – managing their jobs and Zoom school for their children at the same time? How many women have given up going for that next promotion or new job or even asking for a raise because they are barely able to get through these exhausting days?
Together, these factors have led many to describe the pandemic recession as a women’s recession. That means that we will need a women’s recovery. What does that look like? It looks like an economic agenda that values women’s contribution to the economy and makes it possible for all parents to balance work and home responsibilities. The following are key elements:
Mandate paid leave: The Family First Coronavirus Relief Act created a federal right to paid sick leave for the first time in the United States. With FFCRA, the US joined nearly every other country in the world in providing some form of paid sick or family leave. The need for paid sick leave, however, won’t end with the pandemic. Parents – not only moms – need to be sure that they can care for their own health and their family’s health in order to be fully engaged in the workforce. We need to enact a permanent and universal paid sick leave law.
Expand access to child care: Pandemic-related closures created an acute child care crisis, especially for essential workers. With child care centers and schools closed, millions of women were left with the horrendous dilemma of figuring out how to keep paychecks coming in while providing care for their children. But our child care crisis didn’t start with the pandemic. American families have struggled for decades with a severe shortage of affordable child care options. For women to fully re-enter the labor market, we need to solve this child care problem through subsidies, recruiting providers and incentives for increasing access.
Improve care economy jobs: Research has long shown that female-dominated occupations pay low wages – lower than male-dominated occupations. One way to improve the economic outlook for women is to focus on raising wages in those sectors. One important place to start is with care economy jobs. As Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, aptly says, these care economy jobs constitute the work that makes all other work possible. We should honor the importance of this work by ending the poverty wages and demeaning conditions that are all too common in this sector.
Protect the public sector: In the September job numbers, we saw an alarming loss of jobs in state and local governments. Those losses should not seem abstract – they represent teachers, health care providers, sanitation workers and election officials losing their jobs. These cuts constitute a women’s issue – since the civil rights movement, women and workers of color have been employed in high rates in the public sector. Press reports suggest that one of the major issues preventing agreement on a next round of COVID relief legislation is disagreement over support for state and local governments. If we want to get women on the road to economic recovery, this political fight needs to resolve in favor of providing more support, for the sake of public services and women’s jobs.
Reform labor law: At its core, labor law determines how power is allocated in the labor market. Women clearly have lost power in the labor market as a result of the pandemic recession. A critical mechanism for building worker power is unionization. Labor law reform should start with inclusion. Too many women are excluded from this important means of building power because of exclusions in the law that have explicit racist and sexist origins. To right these historical wrongs, Congress should extend the right to unionization to domestic and agricultural workers who are currently excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.