After a year that decimated jobs for women, less than half of those jobs returned by the end of December, in an economy that has recovered slowly and unevenly before grinding to a halt.
According to new data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday, about 44.6 percent of the jobs women lost between February and April had come back as of December. At the worst of the crisis, more than 12.1 million jobs held by women vanished.
December’s figures gave the final status check on what has become America’s first female recession. For the first time, jobs held by women disappeared at a faster clip than those held by men; women were far more likely to be in jobs affected by social distancing regulations brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The damage to the child care industry, which has lost thousands of jobs since the start of the year, also led hundreds of thousands of women to exit the labor force in order to care for their children.
Since the start of the pandemic, jobs have started to trickle back in, but slowly. Latinas and Black women have continued to struggle the most to re-enter the job market. December’s numbers illustrate the extent of those challenges at the close of the year.
Overall, December was the first time since April that the U.S. economy stopped adding jobs and instead shed them. The country lost 140,000 jobs in December, the first month-to-month decline since the pandemic started. Women made up all of those losses: About 156,000 women lost their jobs in the final month of the year, while men gained 16,000 jobs, according to data that surveyed employers. (BLS uses two surveys, one surveying establishments and one surveying households, to formulate a picture of the status of the U.S. economy).
The net figures don’t capture the full picture — men lost jobs, too — but taken as a group, men gained more jobs than they lost and women lost more jobs than they gained.
What’s clear across the board is that the slowing recovery finally took a nosedive in December. In April, 20.8 million jobs vanished, but the country started regaining those jobs in May, when 2.7 million returned. In June, 4.8 million came back, in July it was 1.8 million and in August it was 1.5 million.
Then the recovery slowed further: By September, 711,000 jobs had returned, in October another 654,000 returned, in November it was just 336,000. In December? None.
There are other signs of stress, too. The labor force participation rate — the percentage of the working-age population that is working or actively looking for work — for women ages 35 to 44 plummeted in December to 74 percent, edging closer to the numbers in May of 73.7 percent at the worst of the crisis economically for women in this age group.
The decline was significant because for other age groups, labor force participation stayed flat month to month, said Wendy Edelberg, the director of The Hamilton Project and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
The only other time it has dipped like that for women in this age group was in September, when 865,000 women left the labor force and the participation rate dropped to 73.8. Then, the start of a largely virtual school year was to blame. Now, it’s likely the rise in coronavirus cases and caregiving responsibilities.
It also tells a larger story about what shape the recovery may take, Edelberg said.
“Participation in the labor force is a very difficult ship to turn,” she said. “The fact that we are seeing, month after month after month, women not participating in the labor force suggests that the recovery in the labor market is going to be slower and more painful.”
In December, the number of women who are employed or looking for a job stayed relatively flat. About 27,000 women joined the labor force, compared to 18,000 men, according to BLS’ survey of households.
But the unemployment rate edged slightly upward for women, to 6.3 percent from 6.2 percent in November. It’s the first time since April that women’s unemployment rate has gone up month-to-month.
It went up more dramatically for Latinas, especially, who saw the unemployment rate increase to 9.1 percent, up from 8.2 percent. White women also saw a bump in unemployment, from 5.4 percent in November to 5.7 percent in December.
Black women and Asian women were the only ones for whom the unemployment rate decreased. For Black women it went down from 9 percent in November to 8.4 percent in December; for Asian women it decreased from 7.3 percent to 6.6 percent.
The figures point to the lingering damage wrought by the pandemic on jobs held predominately by women. Once again last month, hospitality, education and government were the fields with the largest job loss — all of them are fields dominated by women.
Communities of color continue to suffer most of all.
In terms of who was employed in December, the Latinx community suffered the greatest losses, with 252,000 fewer people employed in December. About 26,000 fewer Black workers were employed last month, and 40,000 fewer Asian workers.
White workers were the only ones who saw an increase, with 38,000 more employed in December. The increase was most dramatic for White women: an additional 106,000 became employed.
That means that the increased unemployment rate for White women, which is a measure that captures people who are unemployed but seeking employment, was driven by White women who had left the labor force and then decided in December to begin looking for work.
Michael Madowitz, an economist with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, said the recent surge in coronavirus cases is likely behind the depressed numbers for communities of color, and particularly Latinas. Many of the states where cases have spiked — California, Texas and Florida — are home to the country’s largest Latina populations.
And yet, BLS used the week of December 6 to December 12 as its survey reference week for the new figures, before some of the largest spikes. Madowtiz said he expects to see the trend of job loss that cropped up in the December figures continue when the January numbers are released next month.
All of the different measures released — job losses, the unemployment rate and the number of employed or looking for work — get at different slices of the employment picture in December, but together they paint a portrait of continuing challenges that still put the U.S. economy far behind where it was nearly a year ago when the pandemic first shocked the job market.
The larger dropoff in the employment number, Madowitz said, specifically points to the losses he and many economists had predicted were coming.
“If anything, that sort of gave me some hope that some people who have been in denial about this will give that up,” he said.
The figures will be the last ones Joe Biden’s administration will have as reference when he takes presidential office on January 20.
At the end of 2020, Congress passed a $900 billion stimulus package that included increased unemployment insurance payments and stimulus checks, but was expected to be a stop-gap before the Biden administration came in. Biden has said he wants to pass a more robust package, and he’ll be doing it with a slightly more Democratic Congress that could help end the stalemate a split Congress faced for most of 2020, when Democrats and Republicans in each chamber could not agree on what to include in a second round of aid.
The numbers in December, Madowtiz said, only make the need for more aid more urgent.