September Jobs Report Analysis

Women Dropping Out of Labor Force at Alarming Rate

Equity, Impact Lab, Jobs Report, Private Sector, Public Policy, Time's Up, Measure Up, Women on the Front Lines

On Friday, October 2, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released their monthly jobs report for September. While the overall unemployment rate declined to 7.9 percent from 8.4 percent and the U.S. economy gained 661,000 jobs, the headlines mask a grimmer reality. Only about a third of jobs have returned for Black workers – compared to 60 percent for white workers. And women are dropping out of the labor force at an alarming rate.

Women are losing their careers, in no small part because of the unprecedented caregiving burdens that women are shouldering. A recent study by the Census Bureau found that “of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands.”

As we continue to weather this crisis and start to recover, it is crucial that we see this national caregiving crisis as a significant economic liability. The economy is made up of all of us and if women are not supported, we will not see a robust, inclusive recovery.

Women are leaving the labor force in droves.

This is the first recession led by job losses in sectors that disproportionately employ women – meaning that women are losing their jobs at a higher rate than men and rejoining the labor force at a much slower pace than men. For the second month in a row, women are dropping out of the labor force at a steady pace, and the gap between men and women’s labor force participation is widening. In September alone, 865,000 women ages 20 and older dropped out of the labor force – compared to 216,000 men in the same age group.

Change in Labor Force by Gender
Women are dropping out of the labor force faster than men. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. LNS11000025 and LNS11000026.

Black and Latinx women are faring even worse.

Of the more than 800,000 women who dropped out of the labor force, Hispanic and Latinx women and Black women comprised 324,000 and 58,000, respectively. That means that nearly half (44 percent) of the women who dropped out of the labor force were Black and Latinx.

Black and Latinx women were also among those hit hardest at the start of the pandemic. In the initial wave of job losses in April, of the 20.5 million jobs lost more than half were women – and Black and Latinx women workers dominated the sectors that experienced some of the deepest job losses: leisure, hospitality, and retail.

Unfortunately, that trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Black and Latinx women are still facing double digit unemployment numbers – 11.1 percent for Black women and 11 percent for Latinx women. And the unemployment gap between white women and women of color is on the rise.

Even more worrisome is the fact that the economy is still down 1.2 million state and local jobs, many of which were in education. The 2008 recession showed that Black women faced a difficult and prolonged recovery as a result of persistent job losses in the public sector, which Black women have long relied on for high-quality and well-paid jobs.

The unemployment rates for women ages 20 and older: white women (6.9 percent), Black women (11.1 percent), and Hispanic or Latina women (11 percent). Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. LNS 14000029; LNS 14000032; LNS 14000035.

Our broken caregiving system is a significant barrier to economic recovery.

The stakes are unimaginably high: without bold action, we risk losing decades of women’s progress in the labor market. We also risk further entrenching deep structural inequalities that fuel racial and gender wage and wealth gaps. We are making a choice to let millions of people around the country struggle in this crisis, and there is a risk that things will get much worse if we don’t act fast.

This is particularly the case for women of color, who disproportionately hold jobs that are poorly paid, unsafe, and have unpredictable schedules. All of these factors contribute to economic instability that make it very hard to provide care for dependents in need. On the other hand, the need to provide care may lead to some women to put up with poor workplace conditions – or drop out of the labor force entirely.

The caregiving responsibilities that fall on women also make it less likely that they will be able to come back into the labor force – not only because of the necessary, unpaid labor, but also because of the health risks that they may bring into a household with vulnerable elders or children. Black and Latinx women make up a huge share of our country’s caregiving workforce. These jobs are poorly compensated and often do not come with basic benefits such as health care and paid sick and family leave – to name a few.

Without healthy, thriving caregivers, our economy falls apart. Women’s labor is the engine that allows the rest of the labor market to run. We must start seeing caregiving as crucial infrastructure for a strong, resilient economy.