Women return to the labor force in October as jobs rebound

Originally published by The 19th

After their largest drop-off from work so far this year in September, women began to rejoin the workforce in October, helping drive an economic rebound, according to new data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday.

About 309,000 women left the workforce in September as a result of weak growth in education and hospitality jobs, positions largely held by women, and the start of a new school year and a lack of child care kept some parents out of work.

But in October, 251,000 women rejoined the labor force, driven by the return of jobs in hospitality, a field that has been somewhat of a bellwether for the state of women in the economy. The hospitality industry, one of the largest employers of women in the country, lost half of all of its jobs in April 2020 as the pandemic set in, helping to drive a women’s recession. It has been clawing back since.

Hospitality added 164,000 jobs last month, with 119,000 jobs added in restaurants and 23,000 added at hotels.

Overall, the economy added 531,000 net jobs in October, a strong month of growth after two months of lower-than-expected job gains. About 304,000 of those net gains went to women, while 227,000 went to men.

Education and public-sector jobs continue to struggle, however, with 65,000 jobs lost in local and state public education, although the pandemic has made it more difficult to interpret what exactly is happening in that sector because adjustments that take into account seasonal hiring are distorted, BLS said.

What is clear, however, is that education has been consistently shedding jobs for the past few months. Local public education jobs are still down about 370,000 positions from before the pandemic begin, in February 2020, and state public education is down 205,000 jobs from that date.

What also continues to be a trend is the significant lag in employment for women of color, and Black women especially.

The majority of the women who joined the labor force last month were White — 292,000 — with another 114,000 Latinas also joining. But 52,000 Black women left the workforce, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.

“Black women face a lot of discrimination in hiring practices by employers and so if they have been unemployed for a long period of time, and we know about one in three Black women have been unemployed for six months or more, they could become discouraged,” said Jasmine Tucker, the director of research at the National Women’s Law Center. “We’ve seen discouraged workers leave the labor force for periods of time.”

Overall, unemployment rates for women remained largely flat in October. The overall rate now sits at 4.4 percent, with a lower rate for White women at 3.9 percent. But Black women continue to have the highest rate — nearly twice the rate for White women — at 7 percent. Unemployment for Latinas is 5.7 percent and for Asian women the rate is 4.4 percent, up slightly from 3.4 percent in September. (BLS does not collect data on nonbinary people, and does not have monthly data on Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.)

For men and women, the overall Black unemployment rate — 7.6 percent — and overall Latinx rate — 5.4 percent — are far above the White unemployment rate of 3.8 percent.

For Asian women, the shift in October’s unemployment rate, which is not adjusted for seasonal hiring patterns like the other figures because the sample size is much smaller, may reflect people who have started to again look for work, but have not yet found a job. To be counted as unemployed, workers need to be not working but seeking work; otherwise they are considered out of the workforce.

As the school year goes on and more parents become more comfortable sending their kids back in person or finding child care for them, they may be willing to reenter the workforce though they may not yet have jobs, Tucker said.

“These labor force reentrants are driving this because not all the people who’ve returned to the labor force have found work immediately and that’s what’s at play,” she said.

That is going to continue to be a factor that will drive the recovery. With the recent approval of vaccinations for children between the ages of 5 and 11, more women may be willing to begin seeking jobs again. A recent study published in the Federal Reserve found that loss of child care was the central culprit that drove college-educated women who had the potential to work remotely out of the workforce in the past year and a half.

Their return will hinge on whether enough child care slots are even available. The industry is still down 10 percent of its positions since the start of the pandemic. And overall, there are still 1.7 million fewer women in the workforce than in February 2020, compared with 1.2 million fewer men.

“Some of those workers are going to be ready to come back, and whether we’re going to have enough jobs for all those people, I think, is the question,” Tucker said. “And, even if we were able to get all the under-5 [kids] group vaccinated, there wouldn’t be a workforce.”

A package Congress is currently negotiating would invest about $400 billion to beef up the supply of child care, increase wages for workers — which could help recruit workers back to the industry, — lower costs for parents and enact a universal free preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Even if that package passes, it will take years for wages to fully rise. The latest version calls for $100 billion to go to states to begin raising wages within the first three years of the program, 2022, 2023 and 2024.

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