Less than a month after the coronavirus shutdowns and lockdowns began last spring, it was already becoming clear that low-income women in the workforce would likely bear the brunt of pandemic-related layoffs. And even for the women who were able to keep their jobs, there were other issues—many mothers were left with no option but to cut back on their working hours or leave their jobs entirely once schools began to close and finding (let alone affording!) child care became next to impossible. It’s estimated that 2.3 million women dropped out of the labor force just between February 2020 and February 2021, and women’s participation in the U.S. labor force is currently the lowest its been since 1989.
One of the reasons women have suffered the most over the past year and a half is because they account for such a high percentage of workers in the industries that have been most severely impacted by pandemic closures and downsizing, including retail, food service, and domestic care work (which includes nannies, housekeepers, and health aides). Of the 2.2 million domestic workers in the U.S., 92% are women—and over half are women of color. Even outside of a pandemic context, domestic care work is often grueling, unforgiving, and underpaid. “To this day, the workforce works without job security, unpredictable hours, no access to a safety net. Eighty-two percent of domestic workers came into the pandemic without a single sick day, no health care,” Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told Yahoo News.
Many domestic workers who previously worked in child care or as health aides lost their jobs during the pandemic, and those who were able to hold onto their jobs were often left no option but to risk their own health (and the health of their loved ones) during the height of the pandemic by relying on insufficient PPE equipment. Although the economy has begun to rebound in recent months, many domestic workers are still searching for jobs. “[Domestic workers] still have a 25 percent unemployment rate,” said Poo. “So there’s still a lot of people who are out of work. And many domestic workers have not been able to get access to relief either because of their immigration status or because of the nature of their work, which is very informal.”
In April 2021, it was estimated that 5 million women in the U.S. were still unable to return to work due to issues with childcare. So, not only do women make up a large portion of domestic workers, but—because women disproportionately shoulder the burdens of housework and child care within their homes—women’s ability to participate in the labor force is also often reliant on support from domestic workers.