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Women Face Impossible Choice: Second Shift or Leave Work

The old central office building for the Virginia Employment Commission. While thousands in the state are receiving unemployment insurance through the VEC, thousands more don't qualify after leaving the labor force. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In October, Virginia’s labor force participation rate fell to 63.5%, its lowest level since at least 1976, the first year the Bureau of Labor Statistics published state-level data. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, over 175,000 Virginians have left the labor force, around 3% of the state’s work-eligible population. But, while the pandemic certainly accelerated the process, it’s a continuation of a trend the state, and the whole country, has been experiencing throughout the 21st century.

Virginia’s labor force participation peaked in 1992 with 71.5% of work-eligible citizens either employed or actively looking for work. Since then, demographic changes have steadily brought participation down.

“Our population is aging, and older people have a lower labor force participation rate,” said Sonya Waddell, a vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. 

But, population aging alone doesn’t explain the shrinking. Maria Prados, an economist at the University of Southern California, said in an email that demographic changes only account for between half and two-thirds of the decline. She points to two other groups behind the fall: young adults and married women.

She said it’s too early to say why young adults are leaving the labor force, but it might be due to increased investment in education. For married women, it’s more of a trend reversal.

“The labor force participation of married women increased notoriously during most of the [20th] century, but it plateaued since 1995. It is low even compared to other developed countries,” Prados said. “Many reasons have been thought to contribute to this behavior, mostly having to do with gender inequalities in the workplace and lack of family-friendly labor policies.”

In 2019, UNICEF ranked the United States as worst among all nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for family-friendly policies. It is the only nation in the group, which includes most of North America and Europe, that has no national requirement for paid family leave, something that may have forced even more women out of the labor force during the pandemic.

“Parents who cannot get childcare have been forced to deal with the new additional childcare time demands, and some of these parents, mostly mothers as we are seeing in the data, may end up dropping from the labor force to take care of the children,” Prados said. “This is a new blow to participation on top of an already existing trend among married women.”

In September, 865,000 women left the labor force across the country, according to the National Women’s Law Center. That compares to only 235,000 men. 

According to Prados, the excess burden of childcare has disproportionately been placed upon women. In an ongoing research project, she found that 52% of mothers living with their spouses or a partner were mainly responsible for childcare. For men, that figure stood at only 11%. 

But, it’s not just women who’ve dropped out of the labor force feeling that crunch. Prados found a similar split among working parents: 47% of working women and 9% of working men. 

Marjorie Signer, the legislative vice president for the Virginia chapter of the National Organization of Women, said this is worsening the “second shift,” where even when women enter the workforce, they still do most of the house and childcare.

“I talked to an old friend who’s a corporate attorney in NoVa,” she recalled. “She said from mid-March through June... she was the solo parent from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for her child who’s probably about 4 when her husband was at the office. And then, she worked from 4 p.m. to midnight on her legal work when he got home.”

Signer and Virginia NOW have been working for years to try to get paid family leave passed in Virginia. In 2020, both Sen. Jennifer Boysko and Del. Jennifer Carrol Foy’s bills were left in committee. 

“Currently, many low-income workers don’t have access to these types of benefits. This would be a major change for the commonwealth,” Signer said. “It is necessary to clarify this is not some giveaway. This is something that employers and employees would contribute to, like Social Security.”

Increased childcare responsibilities are not the only cause for women leaving the labor force. Waddell also notes that the particular course of the pandemic forced women to leave work. 

“One defining feature of this recession has been the incredible hit we had to some particular industries,” she said. “Some of those industries actually disproportionately hire women, so women might be more likely to be in a job that was impacted by the social distancing.”

Regardless of why women have left the labor force during the pandemic, the effects might not disappear once COVID-19 wanes. Waddell says that if women leave the labor force and stay out of work for long periods, it can become difficult to return to employment, something Prados worries could harm gender equality in the workplace.

“Much progress has been made in terms of gender equality in the workplace, but there are still more gains to be made in this respect,” she said. “However, the blow to female labor force participation brought about by the pandemic may mean a setback in this progress.”

Waddell recognizes this concern, but she holds hope that for many, these effects may be temporary.

“I think for at least some percentage of people this is going to be short-term,” she said. “I don’t know that I would want to say that we would be having sort of a permanent effect, that this situation is going to have a permanent effect on women’s labor force participation, but I do think that there is the possibility of a challenge that we have that lasts more than just the next nine months.”

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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