WASHINGTON — So many women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic that the Biden administration has said it is an emergency and warned of a setback so severe that it could stand in the way of a full economic recovery.
The White House says it is concerned that women are taking themselves out of the running for promotions, off the frontlines of health care work and away from education opportunities that lead to higher paying jobs because their family responsibilities are piling up at home.
“In one year, the pandemic has put decades of the progress we’ve collectively made for women workers at risk,” Vice President Kamala Harris told women’s advocacy groups and female lawmakers recently. “And the longer we wait to act, the harder it will be to bring these millions of women back into the workforce,” she said.
Women workers are in crisis, experts agree. Layoffs in female-dominated industries and widespread school and daycare closures have had a crippling effect on economic opportunity and advancement for women.
More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic compared with 1.8 million men, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which says the number of women who have jobs or are looking for work is at its lowest level since 1988.
“I think we all believe this is a national emergency. Women leaving the workforce in these numbers — it’s a national emergency and it demands a national solution,” Harris said.
The Biden administration says its COVID-19 relief package is a big part of the solution. Money in the bill to reopen schools for in-person learning and finance daycare is meant to help parents return to work.
Liberal advocacy groups say President Joe Biden’s stimulus plan is a good first step, but it will not be enough to help women get or stay in jobs. Provisions they say will help women significantly, such as a minimum wage increase, have been dropped from the COVID-19 relief legislation, while others, including permanent paid family and sick leave, were never in the package.
They anticipate that Biden will try to tackle some of the broader barriers to women’s financial success in his next big legislative proposal, an infrastructure package that could go beyond highways and broadband internet and include liberal priorities like high-quality and affordable child care.
“We have a crisis of a lack of a care infrastructure in the United States of America. That crisis existed before the pandemic began, and has now turned into an all out catastrophe,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder of MomsRising. “Just like we need to build bridges in order to get to work, we need to build a child care infrastructure.”