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Despite jobs rebound, economists warn ‘She-cession’ still lingers

The U.S. labor market, having rebounded strongly from COVID-19, still has pockets of weakness in spite of a worker shortage throttling multiple industries.

Most notably, economists cite the continued struggles of the leisure and hospitality sector, where millions of laid-off women helped to create what some observers have recently called a “she-cession.” Lockdowns exacerbated racial and gender employment gaps that existed before COVID-19 walloped the global economy.

The hospitality industry — which includes restaurants, hotels, museums, spectator sports, and more — accounted for 10% of the entire workforce pre-pandemic, the National Women’s Law Center said in May. Even amid the broad economic rebound, the NWLC found that the sector is still lagging its size in February 2020.

And between February 2020 and May 2021, women lost nearly 1.4 million leisure and hospitality jobs, a NWLC analysis revealed. The net female job losses represented more than half of those lost in the entire sector between February 2020 and May 2021, the organization said.

The answer to healing a still damaged jobs market lies with closing the workforce’s gender gap, labor policy experts say.

“Certain occupations, certain industries that are dominated by women have seen a traumatic loss in jobs and massive layoffs,” Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said in an interview.

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in June 2020, women over the age of 20 had an unemployment rate of 11.3%, Bureau of Labor Statistics survey data show, higher than the male unemployment rate of 10.3%. Since that spike high, female joblessness has gradually normalized, dropping to 5.5% in the most recent jobs data.

Still, the NWLC argues that women have a lot of lost ground to recapture.

“It's important for us all to remember that we are not actually out of this crisis yet,” Julie Vogtman, director of job quality at the NWLC, told Yahoo Finance Live in a recent interview.

'Alarming rate'

Sandra Presley, 57, is interviewed at a job fair for restaurant and hotel workers, after coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions were lifted, in Torrance, near Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Sandra Presley, 57, is interviewed at a job fair for restaurant and hotel workers, after coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions were lifted, in Torrance, near Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Female-dominated sectors, like leisure and hospitality, were heavily scaled back during the pandemic, and have yet to fully recover, economists say.

Even the C-suite has not been spared, with Challenger Gray tracking data noting high female executive turnover at the start of 2021.

“Women are leaving the workforce at an alarming rate,” the firm said in February. “The pandemic has hit industries primarily employing women hardest, and child care and compensation issues which continually plague women are being exacerbated by the pandemic.”

According to UCLA’s Wong, women are more likely to bear the responsibilities for caregiving at home — be it children, parents, in-laws, or other family members. They are also more inclined to shoulder most of the responsibilities associated with balancing work and family.

“We need to think about how they can attract and retain folks by creating jobs that will actually support women, support their families and support our economy, rather than keeping people hanging on by a thread,” Vogtman said.

And now that most states are moving to curtail COVID-era unemployment benefits, state and federal laws still allow employers to pay less than $5 an hour to people working for tips, said Vogtman.

Within that segment, “nearly one in five Black women” live in poverty, he said - underscoring how the recovery could leave scores of women — particularly those of color — behind.

Vogtman warned that policymakers and employers should guard against a return “to a status quo that wasn’t working for millions of people well before the pandemic.”

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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