Over the summer, economists began to worry. Working parents were already exhausted from months of trying to cram a full-time job, full-time parenting and a bit of sleep into a 24-hour day. What would happen if schools remain closed in the fall? What would happen if daycares didn’t reopen?
“At first, we all thought, this is going to be a brutal month or two, and we’re going to put the economy into a coma, get the virus under control and then we’ll go back to work and school and everything will be normal,” says Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress. “But that scenario hasn’t appeared.”
Instead, as the virus raged on, economists warned that many moms would simply stop working—a “disaster” and “catastrophe” that would set women’s advancement in the workforce back by decades. The latest data from the September jobs report suggests the first part of that prediction has come true.
Four times as many women over the age of 20 dropped out of the labor force in September as men over 20, according to calculations made by Madowitz, using the latest labor force statistics from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September, compared to 216,000 men.
Jobless people are slotted into one of two classifications by the BLS, either unemployed or “not in the labor force,” which indicates they’ve stopped actively looking for work, and the category includes retirees, students and parents who exclusively take care of their kids. It’s the latter group that Madowitz suspects is growing, particularly among women.
Why? The number of women and men who dropped out of the labor force began to diverge sharply in August—right around the time when virtual schooling obligations would have resumed for many families. And it continued to diverge in September, as Madowitz illustrated in a graph posted to Twitter:
“Virtual school and hybrid school are wreaking havoc on parents’ schedules,” says Vicki Shabo, the senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy for the Better Life Lab at New America. “The brunt of the burden seems to have fallen on women.”
Indeed, study after study shows that moms have shouldered a far bigger share of chores, childcare and schooling duties since the coronavirus swept across the country—a burden that’s simply become too big for many. A report by LeanIn and McKinsey released just this week found that one in three moms has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of COVID-19.
Hannah Lidman, a mom of two kids, ages 4 and 6, and an early learning policy director in Seattle, is one of the moms who stopped working in September. “Spring and summer with them home and me working 50 hours a week was hell,” she says. “When it became clear that school was going to be remote for the fall, I made the choice to stay home and manage my older kiddo’s school engagement as a first grader.”
She’s unsure when she will look for work again, but “it won’t be during remote schooling,” a decision that’s made easier by her husband’s income, as a developer at Facebook. “Lots of privilege over here allowing a choice I didn’t want to make,” she adds.
Moms who are voluntarily leaving the workforce are just one piece of a fairly dismal September report, showing slowing job growth amidst an economy that’s still reeling from the pandemic. Unemployment is stuck at 7.9 percent, not much lower than its peak during the Great Recession of 10.6 percent.
The sluggish economy will make it harder for women who drop out of the workforce to jump back in. “It would be one thing if the economy were cranking and everyone was looking for workers and all the schools opened, but it just doesn’t look like that’s the scenario we’re headed towards,” Madowitz says.
Finding childcare is expected to remain challenging too. “Without federal support, 8 in 10 childcare providers will close their doors and this situation will only get worse,” says Katie Hamm, Madowitz’s colleague at the Center for American Progress and the vice president of early childhood policy. “The House passed $57 billion in childcare relief funds last night, but the Senate and the White House have yet to move a relief package.”
Of course, for many moms—especially single moms and breadwinners—leaving the workforce isn’t a possibility. “For frontline workers who are their families’ sole source of income, leaving work isn’t an option—and struggles with finding childcare, concerns about COVID-19 risks and worries about providing income and providing care are stressful parts of a new normal,” Shabo points out.
Still others can’t find work even when they want it—particularly Latinas and Black women, who have suffered the highest rates of unemployment during this recession.
All in all, it spells out a future that looks markedly grimmer for working moms—which will imperil the country’s economic rebound too. Because this is the first recession where women have lost more jobs than men, economists fear a slower recovery.
“Occupational segregation tends to put men into industries that have more volatile employment, like construction. Rehiring in those industries can happen pretty fast,” Madowitz explains. “For the rest of the economy, rehiring doesn’t tend to happen as fast, and the slowest rehiring typically happens in state and local governments, which are both in huge financial trouble right now. More than half of government jobs are held by women. There are going to be a lot of teaching jobs that don’t exist for a long time.”