Rebuilding Women in the Workforce after COVID-19

For almost a year, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the world, the economy, and fundamentally altered the traditional workplace. Offices are empty. Theatres, concert venues and airports are eerily vacant. Coffee shops, restaurants and bars are either closed, don’t allow customers to dine on-site or have limited seating. Entire industries have been forced into an indefinite hiatus. Throughout it all, many employees are making due by working in bedrooms, on couches, or dining tables while pulling double duty as an at-home educator.

While news of vaccines provide some light at the end of this incredibly long dark tunnel, the impact of the pandemic will linger well beyond 2020. Once the dust settles, it is unlikely that every worker who has left or been forced to leave the workforce will return. The economic uncertainty and lack of opportunities post-pandemic will undoubtedly impact women because a staggering number of women have left the workforce due to the pandemic as compared to men who have left the workforce. Some sources report the number of women who have left the workforce in the United States in 2020 is over 800,000 while other sources report the number is closer to 2.2 million. Either way, it is evident women are being disproportionately affected by job loss due to the pandemic.

Why are more women so affected? Certain industries hardest hit by pandemic closures employ a high number of women (e.g., leisure, hospitality, and education). And, women are typically the primary caretakers so when stay-at-home orders result in schools and child care centers closing, women have being forced to find ways to make it all work. Months of continuing uncertainty, unpredictability, and loss of sustained and available in-person school and childcare has proven disastrous to women in the workforce.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided some ease for primary caretakers. Until December 31, 2020, all employees of qualified employers are entitled to take up to 80 hours of paid sick leave (at 2/3rds their regular rate of pay), and qualifying employees can take an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave (again, at 2/3rds their regular rate) if the employee is unable to work or telework due to a school closure or unavailable child care. Once the 80 hours of paid sick leave and 10 weeks of paid emergency family and medical leave are exhausted, there is no requirement for employers to provide more paid leave to an employee for these reasons. Private employers with more than 500 employees and certain employers with less than 50 employees don’t have to offer FFCRA paid leave and certain occupations can be excluded from receiving leave (e.g., health care providers, first responders).

With schools and child care centers closing, on and off, since March 2020, 80 hours of paid sick leave, 10 weeks of paid emergency family and medical leave and 2/3rds pay may not stretch very far. This challenging situation has played out with women having to choose between retaining their position and paying for child care (if possible), reducing their hours (if possible) or resigning to care for their children at home.

Once the country and economy begins to recover, it is not likely women will reenter the workforce with ease. This is problematic because having women in the workplace (and overall diversity in general) often has positive benefits including diverse viewpoints, higher productivity and performance, and retention of talent. Employers should implement targeted efforts to reengage, integrate and rebuild women in the workforce because being able to balance unpredictable childcare with on-site work or pulling double duty as an educator while working from home requires flexibility, planning and empathy. Some ideas to promote a diverse workforce and keep overall moral high include to:

  1. Schedule meetings mid-morning or midafternoon to avoid meetings during the “rush hour” with children.
  2. Schedule regularly occurring (e.g., weekly or bi-weekly) meetings to proactively discuss and address concerns, resources, performance, schedules, etc.
  3. Adjust performance metrics to account for pandemic related conflicts and concerns
  4. Communicate clear expectations, schedules and deadlines
  5. Expand resources to assist employees working remotely

Implementing positive and collaborative strategies can help reverse the mass exodus of women from the workforce and help employees balance their evolving roles at work and home.

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