Women returning to labor force by hundreds of thousands

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Nurse Cassie Owen demonstrates an ultrasound machine at the Portico Crisis Pregnancy Center Jan. 26, 2022, in Murfreesboro, Tenn. States that have passed ever-restrictive abortion laws also have been funneling millions of taxpayer dollars into privately operated clinics that steer women away from abortions but provide little if any health care services. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

(NewsNation) — Women are returning to the workforce by the hundreds of thousands — an indication that pressures brought on by the pandemic may finally be starting to subside — according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The percentage of women defined as “prime-age” workers (ages 25-54) employed or actively looking for work reached its highest point in more than 22 years last month, surpassing pre-pandemic levels, the latest employment report revealed.

In August, the labor force participation rate for women 25-54 hit 77.2% — up from 76.9% in February 2020, according to BLS data.

It’s the highest rate for that cohort since April 2000 and a potential sign the worst pandemic disruptions may be in the rearview mirror.

Women, who made up a majority of workers in service industries hit hardest by the pandemic, were disproportionately impacted during the crisis. At the height of COVID-19, the unemployment rate for women surged to 16.1%, compared to 13.5% for men, data shows.

Other pandemic-induced complications also had a greater effect on women.

When schools and daycares closed, women were more likely to take on childcare responsibilities — which required many to leave the workforce entirely. As recently as last fall, nearly one in three women said their caretaking needs at home made it difficult or impossible to search for full-time employment, according to a survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

From February 2020 to April 2020, the percentage of working-age women (16 and older) who were working or actively looking for work fell from 57.9% to 54.6%.

To put that in perspective, more than 4 million women left the labor force over those three months. That’s in addition to millions of others who continued looking for work but could not find it.

Now, more than two years after the pandemic began, the percentage of women participating in the labor force has fully recovered in the prime age group. Last month alone, the number of those workers employed, or actively looking, grew by 480,000 from the previous month.

Some of the recent gains may partially be due to increased work flexibility in the form of self-employment. A recent study by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research found women are self-employed at higher rates today than before the pandemic.

The increased self-employment was especially pronounced among women who reported having children younger than 6 at home, the report found.

In total, there are more than 1.5 million working-age women (16 and older) in the labor force today compared to this time last year, BLS data shows.

By comparison, the male labor force participation rate for ages 25-54 remains below pre-pandemic levels — 88.6% as of last month versus 89.2% in February 2020.

Despite the recent uptick, women’s groups point out the latest data proves there is still work to be done. Overall labor force numbers remain slightly below pre-pandemic levels.

“This marks 20 consecutive months of job growth for women but still leaves them down a net 98,000 jobs since February 2020,” the National Women’s Law Center wrote in a recent report. “Meanwhile, men have recovered all their net job losses and now hold 338,000 more jobs in August.”

The total number of women (16 and older) in the labor force before the pandemic was approximately 77.5 million, compared to 77.4 million last month. The total number of men (16 and older) in the labor force hit 87.3 million in August, slightly up from the 87 million in the workforce in February 2020.

The overall labor force participation rate for both sexes remains about 1 percent below pre-pandemic levels — a decline driven mostly by older Americans who retired during the pandemic and have not returned to the workforce.

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