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Women are back in the workforce after leaving to caretake during the pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, it took 2 1/2 years, but the number of working-age women in the job market has finally recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Now, that's good news for the economy, but working women and their families still face a lot of challenges, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Qynisha Jordan went back to work this summer after being out of the job market for more than two years. She manages independent grocery store sales for Pepsi in Atlanta, a city better known for that other soft drink.

QYNISHA JORDAN: You know, we definitely have a lot of Coke down here. It's everywhere (laughter).

HORSLEY: Jordan has Pepsi sales accounts in Atlanta, Savannah and South Carolina. The job is a welcome change after spending most of the pandemic at home full-time with her children.

JORDAN: The best part has definitely been having, like, you know, conversations with adults and adult interactions. That's been awesome.

HORSLEY: More than 2 million women left the workforce when the pandemic hit, and many were slow to return. Some had jobs 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.

JORDAN: It was really difficult. I had, like, three children who were doing three completely different things all at the same time. It was a lot.

HORSLEY: Luckily, Jordan's husband kept his job as a property manager throughout the pandemic. But it wasn't easy getting by on a single income. She says it's great for their family to have a second paycheck again. It's also good for the overall economy that more women have now come back into the workforce. For a time, there was a fear that women who dropped out of the job market might not return. University of Michigan economist Betsey Stevenson says that could have hobbled the recovery as businesses scrambled to find enough workers.

BETSEY STEVENSON: Women had a very tough road to haul with kids, working from home and with school being so uncertain. But we're seeing that the pandemic did not do permanent damage to women's attachment to the labor force.

HORSLEY: The return has been especially pronounced among Black and Latina women. More reliable, in-person schooling has likely freed some women to go back to work. The improving health outlook probably helped as well. On a less positive note, Stevenson suspects some women are being forced back into the job market by high inflation.

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

HORSLEY: There are still big challenges. Some of the industries that traditionally employed a lot of women, such as hospitality and education, have not fully recovered from the pandemic. So some of the women who had those jobs have had to find new lines of work. The shortage of affordable childcare also remains a serious roadblock. There are 74,000 fewer childcare 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.

JORDAN: Even though I started working again, it didn't change my responsibilities at home. So I have two jobs.

HORSLEY: This, of course, is not a new balancing act but one that working mothers have faced for decades. Over the course of the pandemic, though, some women adopted a new approach.

FARIDA MERCEDES: Oh, my God. So much has happened in the last two years.

HORSLEY: I first spoke with Farida Mercedes in the fall of 2020, when she reluctantly left her corporate job at L'Oreal to help her two young sons with at-home schooling. She missed the hustle of the business world and imagined she might go back someday. But by the time her kids returned to in-person schooling, Mercedes had changed her mind.

MERCEDES: 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, and I missed all the things.

HORSLEY: So even though she'd always liked the security of a steady paycheck and a retirement plan, Mercedes opted to start her own business. She tried running a Dominican-themed food truck. And when that didn't work out, she turned to operating rental properties on Airbnb. She makes about 25% less money now than she did at her old job, but she's working a lot fewer hours and has a lot more flexibility.

MERCEDES: I love the fact that 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. I can prioritize my day the way that I want to, not the way my boss wants me to. You just can't put a price on that.

HORSLEY: Economist Stevenson thinks a lot of families are making adjustments so that women can rejoin the workforce, just not necessarily in the same way they did before the pandemic. Mercedes says while she never expected this shift, she's grateful for the opportunity to reassess her priorities. As hard as the last two years have been, she says, in some ways, the pandemic has been a blessing. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.