If you want to know why there is a so-called labor shortage, ask women.
While Republicans and business groups blame employers’ proclaimed hiring woes on a temporary boost to federal unemployment benefits, the jobs numbers tell the truth: The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on women workers. We’re in a she-cession.
Just look at the April jobs report to understand why only 266,000 jobs were added to the US economy when the private sector and the Biden administration were hoping for a number closer to a million. While 355,000 men joined the labor force, 165,000 women dropped out, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. There isn’t a shortage of workers — women are being driven from the workforce. This continues a pandemic pattern — in December, all of the economy’s 140,000 lost jobs were held by women.
But instead of focusing on the low wages, gender pay inequities, lack of affordable child care, and front-line positions that forced women to leave their jobs, the GOP and the business sector found a straw man.
“Based on the Chamber’s analysis, the $300 [weekly unemployment] benefit results in approximately one in four recipients taking home more in unemployment than they earned working,” Neil Bradley of the US Chamber of Commerce said in a statement after the release of the April jobs numbers.
First, think about that for a minute: If an extra 300 bucks a week puts workers in a better position than they were in when they had paychecks, shame on their former employers. That amount adds up to about what it costs to feed a family of four for a week, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. Even if that is causing unemployment benefit recipients to choose to stay home — more on that myth in a moment — a simple solution would be for employers, including those who are members of the US Chamber of Commerce, to pay workers a living wage.
Now, about that myth of the lazy worker opting to rely on a handout: If someone quits a low-paying job — as many women did during the pandemic — they are not eligible for unemployment benefits. So cutting the $300 weekly enhancement won’t bring them back to the workforce. Moreover, even workers who were laid off cannot continue receiving benefits if they turn down available work. That’s the law, as President Biden said himself.
But, determined not to let facts get in the way of the subsidized couch-potato myth, Republican state lawmakers in at least 11 states are moving to end the enhanced unemployment benefit, which expires in September, as early as June.
“A strong economy cannot exist without workers returning to a job,” Governor Brad Little of Idaho said in a statement.
But workers can’t return to the job if the high cost or unavailability of child care can’t justify a paltry paycheck. And we still live in a society that places most of the responsibility of child care on women. As restaurants, hotels, and airports — but not most schools — reopen as Americans are getting vaccinated, that helps explain why men are getting back to work and women are not. And for those with very young children, the cost of child care skyrocketed during the pandemic.
“Ultimately the solution to this has to be large-scale investment in building a true child-care system,” said Lauren Birchfield Kennedy in an interview. She’s cofounder of Neighborhood Villages, a nonprofit that connects Massachusetts families with child-care providers and education resources. “It [the child-care system] never worked, it fell apart during the pandemic, and we’re still seeing indicators that it’s having a really difficult time getting back on its feet.”
Building a child care infrastructure will take massive public investment, Kennedy said, and the nonprofit is part of the Common Start Coalition calling on Beacon Hill to pass universal child and after-school care legislation. In Washington, bills to boost and expand the child-care infrastructure have been pressed by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Assistant Speaker of the House Katherine Clark.
But legislation moves slowly. Women workers need help now. And while businesses should not be relied on to provide basic public needs, they can help by investing in child care for their employees instead of demonizing a form of pandemic relief that has helped keep families out of poverty.
But they’re listening to the straw man instead of working women.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.