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The day in April 2020 when Valérie Mekki lost her job, she was afraid to share the bad news with her children. So she hid in her room for 45 minutes.
“I just didn’t want to face them,” says Mekki, who worked in fashion merchandising for over 18 years and was the sole provider of health insurance for his family. “I was ashamed and guilty.”
But her teenagers surprised her with their optimism.
“They had seen me work so hard in the fashion industry. To them it was like – you’re going to find out,” she says.
Over a year later, Mekki is still finding out. She is among the millions of women who have yet to return to full-time work, despite an economic recovery boosted by the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and falling rates of coronavirus infection.
Labor economists say it’s hard to pinpoint a single reason why 2 million fewer women are in the workforce than before the coronavirus pandemic or why in a country now facing labor shortages. labor force, so many women remain unemployed.
“I think it’s just a complex mix of factors,” says Stephanie Aaronson, Principal Investigator at the Brookings Institution. “Some of them may start to ease as the economy recovers, jobs return, schools reopen and health conditions improve.”
But a return to pre-pandemic levels could take a long time, in part because women tend to stick to the decisions they have made. A mother who has decided to stay home with her children during the pandemic can find herself out of the workforce for years, says Aaronson. “So I think the recovery of women’s participation in the labor market may be slow.”
Andrea Hsu / NPR
Katherine Gaines says finding work was never a problem for her before the pandemic. For over 20 years, she worked as a legal assistant in Washington, DC, handling deadline duties for senior lawyers.
“Whatever they needed to do, I was the go-to person,” she says. She even planned a lawyer’s wedding once.
In January 2020, her law firm was downsized and she was made redundant. She quickly applied to some temp agencies and got an assignment that ended around the time the pandemic hit. Then the work ceased.
“No one had anything for me to go to,” she said.
It was a blessing in a way. She had just moved in with her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Taking care of her was a full-time job. She thought about looking for work outside of the legal field but was afraid of catching COVID-19.
“I knew I couldn’t work in retail because I couldn’t be exposed and take it home to my mom,” she says. “So I just had to keep my hopes up. Sit down and wait. I always say, ‘God hasn’t brought me this far to drop me off. “”
This year, Gaines moved his mother to a retirement home. Now she’s starting to apply for jobs again, but this time around she’s more selective. At 62, she doesn’t want to dive back into what she calls “that crazy part” of the legal field – the long hours and tight deadlines.
She would prefer to work from home but is ready to go to an office, as long as precautions are in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Most importantly, she wants to find a job that would still allow her to take her mother to doctor’s appointments and see her frequently at the nursing home. She is ready to look a little longer for the right job, at least until her unemployment benefits run out.
“I’m giving myself up until at least August. That’s when I’m really going to fight,” Gaines says.
Mekki thought his last job was relatively stable. She worked for a company that designed and sold uniforms worn by employees of grocery stores and restaurants. The pandemic has crushed the clothing industry. Nobody was hiring.
Last year, Mekki applied for one job after another, only to be ghosted by employers. With the loss of confidence, she decided to start a blog in order to make herself more marketable. She wanted to show potential employers that she could keep pace in the digital space. She learned things like search engine optimization and written on a subject is important to him: knowing what to do after losing his job.
Her family has stayed afloat financially thanks to a combination of UI benefits, her husband’s income – he owns a personal gym and has held private sessions in client courtyards – and since this spring a few independent writing concerts. She now hopes to get a full-time job as a writer, even though she knows it would only pay a fraction of what she earned before the pandemic.
“Maybe just a quarter of what I was doing,” she says. Still, she thinks it would be worth it if the job came with health insurance.
Mekki, who is 42, says the pandemic made her realize she had aged outside of the fashion industry. Now she wants to pursue other passions, something she has heard from other women as well.
“A lot of people have had a lot of time to think about the direction they want to take after coming out of the pandemic,” she says. “Everyone has been good this time around to sit down and really think about what they want to do next.”