© 2024 Cincinnati Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pandemic Forces More Women To Leave The Workforce


Layoffs, food stamps, hurricane - this is not what Jennifer Stalley had planned for 2020.

JENNIFER STALLEY: I'll be fine. It's fine. Everything's fine. And then, it's - nothing's fine (laughter).

CORNISH: Stalley lives in southern Alabama. She works as a waiter at a restaurant in Gulf Shores right on the beach. Well, she used to work there anyway.

STALLEY: I usually would make anywhere between, oh, like $500 and $800 or $900 a week.

CORNISH: It was enough to cover her expenses - rent, food, not just for her, but also for her two kids, a 15-year-old daughter and her 2-year-old son. It was tight, but it worked. Then came COVID. Stalley became one of the more than 11 million American women who lost their jobs in the start of this pandemic. Her restaurant reopened for a bit until Hurricane Sally shut it down in September. Now she's back to looking for work, work in a service industry that is still devastated. Affordable childcare is hard to come by, and the stalemate in Washington means there's no guarantee any extra stimulus is coming her way. Jennifer Stalley is stuck.

STALLEY: I really hate asking for help. But I don't have any food, and I don't have any pull-ups for him, and I don't - I just don't have anything. And one of my managers from work went to Piggly Wiggly and got me groceries. And I ran around after the hurricane came through and picked up MREs and I'm going to hoard them for the next time I might not have money. So I've gotten help, but I've had to really - I've had to beg for help. And it sucks.

CORNISH: Consider this - more women than men lost their jobs in this pandemic-era economy, millions more. What if the recovery ends up unequal, too?


CORNISH: It's been six months now since the unemployment rate peaked back in April, and people are starting to get back to work. Some jobs are coming back. Valerie Wilson is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. And she's starting to see some trends.

VALERIE WILSON: As we have continued on, it has become clearer and clearer that the recovery from this recession will not be nearly as uniform.

CORNISH: In the federal jobs report for September, there was one stat that caught Wilson's eye - the number of people who left the labor force.

WILSON: So the way that we measure unemployment in this country, the unemployment rate only considers people who report that they have actively searched for a job in the last four weeks.

CORNISH: In September, the number of people who dropped out was huge, more than a million Americans. And even more shocking, 80% were women. Wilson points to a lot of different factors that are working against women, especially women of color. Women are overrepresented in jobs that have been hit hardest by COVID - servers, housekeepers, retail workers, that kind of thing. And like she says, child care has gotten harder. A lot of schools and child care centers are still closed. So many women, Wilson says, are faced with a set of choices that are all bad.

WILSON: Do you go to work and expose yourself to the virus but, you know, continue to bring in income? Do you not go to work, you know, have more protection from the virus, but not have the income? For women in particular who are single heads of households with minor children in school, they're having to make choices about child care at the same time that they're having to make decisions concerning the economic security of their households as well as the health of their households.

CORNISH: There was another striking part about that huge number of women who left the workforce last month. Of the 865,000, more than 300,000 of them were Latina.

WILSON: Latina women were less likely to be employed in occupations that they could do remotely. So, whereas white women may have been more likely to retain employment because they had jobs that they could do from home, Latina women were employed in jobs that they were not able to do remotely. So when those industries were hit by COVID-19 the shutdowns, they completely lost those jobs, as opposed to being able to just continue working but doing so from home.

CORNISH: That's Valerie Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute.

NPR's Brianna Scott spent this week speaking to Latina women around the country, asking about how they're making it work or not.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: It definitely wasn't a choice for Celeste Selwyn (ph) to step away from work earlier this year. Selwyn's 51. She lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. She's worked as a social worker for eight years, working with kids and young adults. At the start of the pandemic, Selwyn tried to keep working full-time with all 85 of her usual clients. But her son's school closed, and she had to take over watching him and teaching him. She's a single mother. Her son is 12 years old, and he has autism. So he needs a lot of extra help.

CELESTE SELWYN: He was having severe behaviors, like leaving the house. He was flooding the bathroom, broke the sink. It's not that he means to do it.

SCOTT: Selwyn's son needs constant supervision and help with things like going to the bathroom. And normally, he'd be in school all day getting help with speech therapy and reading and keeping himself calm. But for Selwyn, having to do all of that alone was overwhelming.

SELWYN: It was really hard and I was really at my breaking point in March where I didn't think that I could continue going on trying to care for him and having, like, all these emails and phone calls from work. I couldn't even shower.

SCOTT: So she tried working part-time for a while. But without the medical benefits that come with working full-time hours, Selwyn would have had to pay a couple hundred bucks for her son's medication every month. So she went back to working full-time in July. She packs it all into her mornings now when her son is at his calmest, instead of later in the day.

SELWYN: As long as my child doesn't go hungry and my bills are paid, that we keep the lights on - I mean, it's a struggle (laughter). But you know, as women of color, we make things work.

SCOTT: The other primary factor in why so many Latinas have lost their jobs or dropped out of the labor force is what's called occupational segregation - in other words, how Latinas are overrepresented in industries like restaurant service, hotels and housekeeping. By April, 72% of domestic workers reported they were out of work, according to a study done by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Many of them are still without a steady job, like Rosana Araujo. She's 52 years old and originally from Uruguay. She came to the U.S. about 20 years ago illegally, and now she lives in Miami, where she cleans houses and warehouses.

ROSANA ARAUJO: (Speaking Spanish).

SCOTT: She says at the beginning of the pandemic, she lost most of her cleaning jobs. Now, when she can find work, she says she can bring in about $1,500 a month. But her rent is a $1,000. So she's left with just a few hundred bucks a month for everything else. When she's not able to find work, she's had to get help from her 19-year-old son or from a charity fund.

ARAUJO: (Speaking Spanish).

SCOTT: She says she's worried about catching COVID because she's had pneumonia before, and the cleaning products she uses sometimes make it harder for her to breathe. It's a bind. Her job might get her sick, but she doesn't have health care, so she'd need that income from work to pay for any medical bills. She's scared, but she says you just have to keep going.

ARAUJO: (Speaking Spanish).

SCOTT: Araujo says that when immigrants face a pandemic, those without documents suffer the most, especially the domestic workers. While other women could be helped by a second round of stimulus checks, Araujo isn't eligible to receive one. For now, she says, she's just trying to work as much as she can and save money and prepare like she would for a hurricane.


CORNISH: NPR's Brianna Scott.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto hears stories like all of these, and she worries big time. She's a public policy expert at the University of Texas. And she tells me that without any help or change, the hardships facing women like the three we've heard about may not stop with having to go part-time.

VICTORIA DEFRANCESCO SOTO: We're probably also going to see a lot of women, you know, spiraling down, and - it pains me to say this - you know, having to move in with relatives. Probably this is going to be a cause of potential homelessness among women. So I think that if we don't see something happen in terms of a real solution, we're going to see real pain and suffering.

CORNISH: In your view, what's needed to right this ship? I mean, is it about another stimulus package?

SOTO: A stimulus package is important, but we're talking about structural change here. The United States, comparatively speaking - it's really embarrassing what our child care system looks like. We have this patchwork system where, you know, you have Head Start, which is amazing. But Head Start only serves about 7% to 13% of those families who need it. We have the, you know, the tax credits that help higher-income families, but that only covers about a quarter of the child care costs. So we need to reimagine what a child care system in an industrialized nation like the United States looks like. Most other of our peer countries have universal pre-K 4, universal pre-K 3, a lot more supports in terms of child care. We need to step it up.

CORNISH: What might the lasting impact be, especially on those communities that were hit the hardest - right? - had the largest numbers of job loss?

SOTO: Right. So if we don't see structural change, not just sending out a check, a check is good to tide one over, but more meaningful structural change, we're going to see the inequalities that we are presencing right now only widen, and at the same time, set women further back. We have seen women slowly but surely make gains in terms of closing the pay gap. It's still a yawning divide, but we are closing it as we're increasing our education, as we are, you know, getting more into the STEM fields, but without the structural supports of child care and also targeted female workforce training.

Because the other piece of this is that we know that women are overrepresented in the jobs that are low-wage, low-skill, that are the most easily automated. So if we're not retooling our women and getting our young girls in school ready to engage in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women are in danger of falling behind rather than making strides forward.


CORNISH: Victoria DeFrancesco Soto of the University of Texas. And we'll hear more about how the pandemic-driven recession is affecting women from NPR's Business Desk in the coming weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.