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‘Two steps forward, one step back’: Omicron threatens new economic slide for women

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POLITICO, December 2021

As Omicron threatens to shut down schools and shutter businesses, economists fear the new coronavirus variant could set working women back even further as they struggle to recover jobs lost during the first wave of the pandemic. Another blow risks causing long-lasting damage, including setting back efforts to close their pay gap with men.

The unemployment rate for women fell from 4.4 percent to 4 percent in November. But that improvement belies the fact that women are still lagging the rest of the economy, regardless of race: While overall employment was 2.2 percent behind February 2020 levels, Hispanic women were 2.4 percent behind; white women were 3.2 percent behind; and Black women 4.2 percent behind, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unexpected school closures and reinstated lockdowns, on top of a crippled child care industry, could reverse what progress women have made since the pandemic abated earlier this year. Not only are women more likely to shoulder most caregiving responsibilities in their households, but their jobs are highly concentrated in the businesses most vulnerable to restrictions and accompanying job losses.

“We see a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ kind of trend” with “every wave of Covid that comes, where women make some inroads over the summer, or in between waves of Covid,” Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economics professor at Northeastern University, said. “And then the next stretch of rubber hitting the road puts the brakes on that.”

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