Qynisha Jordan returned to work this summer after being out of the workforce for more than two years. It was a welcome change, after spending most of the pandemic at home with her children.
“The best part was definitely having adult conversations and adult interactions,” says Jordan, key account manager for PepsiCo in Atlanta. “It was awesome.”
Jordan is one of more than 2 million women who left the workforce when the pandemic hit, and like many, she took her time before coming back.
Some women had worked in restaurants or classrooms that have yet to rehire all of those laid off. Others were busy caring for sick family members or, like Jordan, helping their children be home schooled.
“I vividly remember when the school called and said they were closing school. And from then on I was home,” Jordan said. “It was really difficult. I had three kids doing three completely different things, all at the same time. It was a lot.”
During these months when women left the workforce in large numbers, economists, businesses and policymakers began to fear that they would never return, creating a labor shortage that could hamper the economic recovery. But nearly two and a half years after the coronavirus first hit, the number of working-age women in the workforce is finally back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Women have had a very difficult road to travel with children working from home and with such an uncertain school,” says economist Betsey Stevenson of the University of Michigan. “But we find that the pandemic has not caused permanent damage to women’s attachment to the workforce.”
They’re back now that school is in person, COVID concerns are easing and prices have skyrocketed
In August, more than 49 million women aged 25 to 54 were working or looking for work. That’s slightly more women than there were in the workforce in February 2020. The comeback has been particularly pronounced among black and Latina women.
A number of factors likely contributed to the rebound. More reliable, in-person schooling has undoubtedly freed up some mothers to return to work. Others may have done so because the public health outlook has improved.
On a less positive note, Stevenson suspects high inflation is forcing some women back into the workforce.
“People are kind of driven by the rising prices to think, ‘Ugh, my savings are being hit a little too hard,'” Stevenson said. “And instead of being out there spending their money, they’re going back to work to make money.”
Jordan agrees that today’s high prices make the income from his new job particularly welcome.
“It’s really great to have a paycheck,” she says. “And, just having the opportunity to advance my career.”
There are still great challenges for women re-entering the workforce and for their families. Some of the industries that traditionally employed a lot of women – such as hospitality and healthcare – have not fully recovered from the pandemic crisis and some women who held these jobs had to explore new avenues of work.
The lack of affordable childcare services also remains a serious obstacle. There are 74,000 fewer child care workers today than before the pandemic.
Although Jordan is enjoying her new paid job, she still has to balance it with the demands of her children, including a 7-month-old baby.
“Even though I started working again, it didn’t change my responsibilities at home,” Jordan says. “So I have of them works.”
New perspective on the old balancing act
It’s not a new balancing act of course, but one that working moms have struggled with for decades. During the pandemic, however, some women have taken a new approach.
“Oh my God, so much has happened in the past two years,” says Farida Mercedes.
In the early months of the pandemic, Mercedes reluctantly left a corporate human relations job at L’Oreal to help her two young sons with homeschooling.
“My family needs me,” she told NPR at the time.
Mercedes missed the hustle and bustle of the business world and imagined she might return one day. But by the time her children returned to school in person, Mercedes had a change of heart.
“When I was in business, I had maybe an hour in the morning with my kids, I worked all day, I came home, I had maybe an hour and a half, maybe two hours if I let them sleep late,” Mercedes recalled. “And I missed all the things.”
Mercedes opted to forgo the regular salary and retirement plan her old job offered and start her own business instead. At first, she tried to run a Dominican-themed food truck. When that didn’t work out, she turned to operating rental properties on Airbnb.
Mercedes says she makes about 25% less money now than she did at L’Oreal, but she works far fewer hours and has more flexibility.
“I love being able to drop my boys off at school, being able to pick them up, being able to take them to basketball practice and being able to watch their games,” Mercedes said. “I can prioritize my days as I wish, not as my boss wishes.”
Because she is self-employed, Mercedes’ work does not appear in the Labor Department’s tally of working women. But similar adjustments may have enabled many women to re-enter the workforce.
“We had to adjust to a new normal,” says Stevenson, the economist. “Maybe one of the reasons we see people going back to work is that they’ve been trying to figure out how to adapt and they’re coming to conclusions about how to do it – how to balance it all out. .”
Although she didn’t expect the change, Mercedes says she’s grateful for the opportunity to reevaluate her priorities.
“Over the past two years, while absolutely there have been struggles, in some ways the pandemic has been a blessing to me,” she says. “It was a blessing.”