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Women are returning to (paid) work after the pandemic forced many to leave their jobs

Instead of going back to a corporate job, Farida Mercedes started her own business. It pays less, but she has more flexibility to spend time with her sons Sebastian (left) and Lucas, ages 7 and 9.
Farida Mercedes
Instead of going back to a corporate job, Farida Mercedes started her own business. It pays less, but she has more flexibility to spend time with her sons Sebastian (left) and Lucas, ages 7 and 9.

Qynisha Jordan went back to work this summer after being out of the job market for more than two years. It was a welcome change, after spending most of the pandemic at home with her children.

"The best part has definitely been having conversations with adults and adult interaction," says Jordan, a key account manager for PepsiCo in Atlanta. "That's been awesome."

Jordan is one of more than 2 million women who left the workforce when the pandemic struck, and like many, she took her time before going back.

Some women had worked in restaurants or classrooms that have yet to rehire everyone who was laid off. Others were busy caring for sick family members or — like Jordan — helping tutor their kids through at-home schooling.

"I vividly remember when the school called and said they were closing school. And from then on, I was at home," Jordan says. "It was really difficult. I had three children who were doing three completely different things, all at the same time. It was a lot."

In those months when women dropped out of the workforce in large numbers, economists, businesses and policymakers began to fear they'd never return, creating a worker shortage that could hobble the economic recovery. But nearly two-and-a-half years after the coronavirus first struck, the number of working-age women in the job market has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels.

"Women had a very tough road to haul with kids working from home and with school being so uncertain," says economist Betsey Stevenson of the University of Michigan. "But we're seeing that the pandemic did not do permanent damage to women's attachment to the labor force."

They're back now that school is in person, worries about COVID are easing, and prices have shot up

As of August, more than 49 million women aged 25 to 54 were working or looking for work. That's slightly more women than were in the workforce in February 2020. The return has been especially pronounced among Black and Latina women.

A number of factors likely contributed to the rebound. More reliable, in-person schooling undoubtedly freed some mothers to go back to work. Others might have done so because the public health outlook has improved.

On a less positive note, Stevenson suspects high inflation may be forcing some women back into the job market.

"People are being sort of pushed by the rising prices to think, 'Ugh, my savings are getting hit a little bit too hard,'" Stevenson says. "And instead of being out there spending their money, they're going back to work to earn money."

Jordan agrees that today's high prices make the income from her new job especially welcome.

"Definitely getting a paycheck has been great," she says. "And, just having an opportunity to advance my career."

There are still big 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 health care — have not fully recovered from the pandemic slump and some of the women who had those jobs have had to explore new lines of work.

The shortage of affordable child care also remains a serious roadblock. There are 74,000 fewer child care workers now than there were before the pandemic.

As much as Jordan enjoys her new paying 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 two jobs."


New outlook on the old balancing act

That's not a new balancing act of course, but one that working mothers have wrestled with for decades. Over the course of the pandemic, however, some women adopted a new approach.

"Oh my God, so much has happened in the last two years," says Farida Mercedes.

In the early months of the pandemic, Mercedes reluctantly left a corporate job in human relations with L'Oreal in order to help her two young sons with at-home schooling.

"My family needs me," she told NPR at the time.

Mercedes missed the hustle of the business world and imagined she might return someday. But by the time her children went back to in-person schooling, Mercedes had changed her mind.

"When I was in corporate, I had maybe an hour in the morning with my kids, worked all day, got home, had maybe an hour and a half, maybe two hours if I let them go to sleep late," Mercedes recalls. "And I missed all the things."

Mercedes opted to forego the steady paycheck and retirement plan her old job offered and start her own business instead. At first, she tried running 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's working a lot fewer hours and has more flexibility.

"I love the fact I can drop my boys off at school, that I can pick them up, that I can take them to basketball practice and I can be at their games," Mercedes says. "I can prioritize my days the way that I want to, not the way my boss wants me to."

Because she's self-employed, Mercedes' work doesn't show up in the Labor Department's tally of working women. But similar adjustments may have enabled many women to rejoin the job market.

"We needed to adjust to a new normal," says Stevenson, the economist. "Maybe one reason we're seeing people go back to work is they've been trying to figure out how to adjust and they're reaching some conclusions about how to do it — how to balance it all."

While she never expected this shift, Mercedes says she's grateful for the opportunity to reassess her priorities.

"The last two years, while absolutely there's been struggles, in some ways the pandemic was a blessing to me," she says. "It was a blessing."

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.