Employment dropped for all during COVID-19, but who was hurt the most? Employment dropped for all during COVID-19, but who was hurt the most?

Boston Fed brief sees mothers, women of color bearing brunt of pandemic job loss Boston Fed brief sees mothers, women of color bearing brunt of pandemic job loss

February 13, 2024

When COVID-19 hit the U.S., employment dropped sharply as businesses across the country shut down. But job loss and recovery speed following the pandemic were worse for women – especially mothers and women of color, according to a recent brief by Federal Reserve Bank of Boston researchers.

The brief, “COVID-19 amplified gender disparities, hurting employment most for mothers and women of color,” analyzes how gender gaps in employment grew during the pandemic. Co-author Rebecca Strull said she was inspired to research the issue in June 2020 after seeing how drastically school shutdowns and loss of child care impacted women’s employment.

“We didn’t just focus on how employment gaps changed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. To get the full picture, we needed to see where employment gaps stood before the pandemic even began,” said Strull, a former intern in the Bank’s Regional & Community Outreach department. Her co-authors are Sara Chaganti, the Boston Fed’s deputy director of Community Development Research, Amy Higgins, a Bank research associate, and Beth Mattingly, an assistant vice president at the Bank.

The authors find that mothers of young children, Hispanic women, and Asian American women already had low employment rates before COVID-19, and their employment dropped much lower than other groups during the lockdowns.

Chaganti said the crisis and their research highlights how a lack of access to child care can severely impact families and the workforce.

Strull called the brief “a case study in what happens when an economic shock hits an inequitable society.”

“If we want to foster an inclusive economy … we need to start addressing these issues before a disaster hits,” she said.

Gender employment gaps widened during COVID-19, especially among mothers

The authors use data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey from February to June 2020 to study the “at work” employment rate for prime-age workers. This rate focuses on the employment rate for adults ages 25–54 who were at work during the week the survey was distributed.

They find that a gender employment gap favoring men grew from about 11 percentage points right before COVID-19 to about 15 percentage points in June 2020, due in part to women’s slower job recovery compared to men. The researchers also find that mothers experienced more employment loss than fathers.

The researchers say that about 63% of mothers with children under 6 were employed in February 2020, versus about 73% of all women. At that time, the employment gap between fathers and mothers of young children was about 28 percentage points. These parents lost employment at similar rates during the initial months of the pandemic, the authors say. But because mothers of young children already had low employment rates, their employment fell to 50% by April 2020.

The researchers note that employment for mothers of school-aged children was also impacted by school shutdowns and remote learning during the pandemic. Job recovery for these mothers was slower than recovery for fathers after lockdowns lifted, they say.

New employment gap emerged during the pandemic

The researchers find that gender employment gaps didn’t change significantly for Hispanic or Asian Americans. But due to their lower levels before COVID-19, employment rates for women in these groups dropped to about 50% by April 2020. They also find that a new employment gap emerged between Black men and women by June 2020.

Chaganti said that before the pandemic, the employment rate for Black women was similar to the population total, while the rate for Black men was lower. During the pandemic, their employment rates dropped similarly to other racial groups. But as the U.S. emerged from the pandemic, Black men recovered employment a bit faster than Black women, resulting in a gap of about four percentage points.

Strull said this finding highlights the importance of looking at employment levels before the pandemic.

“By doing that, we’re getting a deeper understanding of these disparities than we would by simply looking at how employment gaps changed during COVID-19,” she said.

Employment disparities have since returned roughly to pre-pandemic levels, but seeing who was hurt most during the crisis can help us avoid similar pain next time, Chaganti said.

“Obviously, we hope that we’ll never have to go through a pandemic again. But shocks in the economy do happen,” she said. “If another situation like this arises, we should have a plan in place to support women and families.”

Read the full brief on bostonfed.org.

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