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First person: Faces of the 2020 'shecession' today

Reporters work on their laptops as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a campaign event at Vernier Software & Technology May 9, 2008 in Beaverton, Oregon.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Reporters work on their laptops as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a campaign event at Vernier Software & Technology May 9, 2008 in Beaverton, Oregon. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Listen to our hour on the economic impact of the pandemic on women.

The ‘shecession.’ It’s a phrase that was in the headlines for much of 2020.

But new analysis finds that gender was not the main driver behind those pandemic job losses for women.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Now, the numbers back then seemed as black and white as numbers can get. From February to May 2020, almost 12 million American women lost their jobs compared to 9 million men, according to Pew Research. Now, that’s a complete flip when compared to the Great Recession back in 2007 to 2008, when more than twice as many men lost their jobs when compared to women.

So by late 2020, we felt like we had to cover the recession. And on October 22nd, 2020, here’s a bit of what I said on this very show.

CHAKRABARTI [Tape]: Today, we’re talking about the ‘shecession.’ Usually, I’m not a huge fan of catchphrases, but this one’s pretty accurate. It’s the ongoing disproportionate impact that the pandemic recession has had on working women and their families.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, I sound so serious. But it was serious at that time. Because in that same month, we talked with Latrish Oseko. She’d been laid off. Then her landlord sold the Newark, Delaware house she, her boyfriend and then four-year-old daughter were living in. They had to move into a motel and the motel sucked up almost every dollar Latrish was getting from unemployment.

LATRISH OSEKO [Tape]: I don’t know when I’m going to go to work. I just had a very nice Zoom interview yesterday, but I just don’t know. You just feel so alone in this world and it’s still not over. Like with this virus is just wreaking havoc. And the management of it, and this unemployment nonsense and it’s just a mess. I’m just praying we continue to get through it.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, what Latrish was living back then was very, very real. But sometimes in trying to analyze big historical moments, we can get the big picture wrong, or at least we don’t see it in enough detail.

So recently on our main our program, economic historian Claudia Goldin came on and she talked about her new 2022 analysis where she finds that gender was not the main driver behind those massive pandemic job losses for women. In fact, Claudia Goldin told us that you were more likely to lose your job based on whether or not you have a college degree, and based on race.

In other words, women and men with a college degree suffered roughly the same job losses, and their employment rates stayed much, much higher than women and men without a college degree. Meaning the ‘shecession’ was only part of the story. But unfortunately it was by far the main part that the media, including us, focused on in 2020. So this week we decided to find out how the women that we spoke with back in 2020 are doing today.

We reached out to many of them and in this special podcast drop, you’re going to hear what their lives are like now and what they think still needs to change.

First up, Latrish Oseko in Newark, Delaware. You heard a bit from her earlier when we called Latrish this week. We wondered if she had, as she’d hoped, returned to work.

LATRISH OSEKO: Finally. I work from home and I’m able to get my daughter on the bus, she’s in first grade now, and then I’m able to get her off the bus with one of my breaks at work. I had to turn down a few opportunities because, you know, the company was saying it couldn’t be on, why it couldn’t be used in a hot spot because the signal wouldn’t be strong enough.

You have to have your own service, but you can’t have your own service in a motel room. So it was very humbling when I was finally able to get our apartment and I realized, if I can do this, I can get through this, I can have a job. I can work from home.

The first job I got, I worked for about eight months and I was temporary. It was a temporary position. So when I found this, I was really happy. I just started. June 27th. It’s my birthday, the best birthday gift ever? So the company is out of Florida. It’s a kidney health management program, so I kind of feel good about it, in that it’s a step in the health care industry. So I feel like that is something that’s going to give me a chance to be around if we should have another pandemic. So I may still be able to keep working.

My job right now, I think, is the most understanding, the most flexible job I’ve had since I’ve been working at the age of 14. I started this job working at 4:30. And one of the things I made it important from the interview up until through when I started that I have to be available to get my daughter. I will work weekends if you want. I will work up to 8:00 at night if I have to.

But I need to just get my daughter. Because it saves us, you know, almost a thousand a month from childcare, and before and after care. You know, that’s always been our highest bill under rent. I joined a group called Moms of Delaware, which I didn’t know at this time.

You know, when I talked to you before. And I didn’t even know any of these groups existed, we talk about things like this and I see the daycares are still shutting down one after another after another. And I’m like, Well, where are we to send their kids? Like infants and toddlers are having to wait six months, almost six-month waiting lists. Those are the issues I think that politicians are really missing. We want to work just like everyone else, but unfortunately, everything falls on the mother.

And, you know, we have to be here at home to take care of the children and you have to be available. And employers aren’t going to be, you know, flexible. When you look out there every day in the morning and you look outside, you see the sunlight and all that kind of stuff, and you’re like, Wow. Just a couple of years ago, we were homeless. We had nothing. All our stuff was in storage and we’re still building. Like, I won’t say everything’s roses and flowers every single day. We’re still building.

And it’s kind of hard with inflation and groceries and everything almost doubling in cost and stuff. But you can deal with those things. But when you don’t have the Internet, when you don’t have a place to stay, when you don’t know where you’re going to lay your head, those are the things that get in the way of life.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Latrish Oseko. She’s a working mom living in Newark, Delaware. With every woman we talk to, then as now, one issue comes up more than any other child care, child care and child care. Here’s what Rachel Cook told us back in May 2020. She lives in Tampa, Florida.

RACHEL COOK [Tape]: Me and my husband are teleworking, but it’s been very tough. Trying to telework as full time parents and also care for three children. Thankfully, my employer is very understanding. They’re offering me other work opportunities. But it has been a struggle. You know, employers can only be understanding for so long.

CHAKRABARTI: When we reconnected with Rachel this week, we played that piece of tape back to her.

And wow. Even just thinking about it, like, it kind of brings back feelings of panic, because that was definitely a tough time. You know, I was a working parent already used to that.

COOK: I’ve been working pretty much my children’s whole lives. But then on top of becoming their teacher at the same time. Their all-day referee, like trying to keep them out of trouble. It was hard.

CHAKRABARTI: Rachel says she and her husband both worked from home during the height of the pandemic, but there was a lot more other work, namely parenting that fell to Rachel.

He has a job that’s not as family friendly, you know, not as understanding of those parenting duties, whereas mine was a little more understanding. And he earns more than me. So kind of a lot of that was put on me to school them and to also work.

CHAKRABARTI: Though Rachel never left her job during the pandemic, she seriously considered quitting just about all the time. And that led to some tough conversations with her husband.

COOK: I’m in a pretty competitive field, so to leave my job, I have my position filled that like to go back into the workplace. Once kids were back in school again, that felt like it would be impossible. That was definitely tough because I’ve worked very hard to get at the point where I’m at now.

So having those conversations about pretty much whose job was more valuable in terms of what it brings to the family future prospects. It was really like, I can’t really compete with his higher salaries. So it was definitely tough. It was hard for me as a woman who’s worked so hard, sacrificed a lot of time with my kids and, you know, to provide for our family. And yeah, that one was definitely tough.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Rachel Cook in Tampa, Florida. By the way, the ongoing disproportional impact of parenting and childcare burdens on women, whether or not they lost their jobs during the pandemic is something that came up again and again with all the women we checked in with this week, including Beth Folsom. Back in October 2020, this is what she told us.

BETH FOLSOM [Tape]: My husband’s position was already the dominant one where we really had to make sure that we kept his salary and made sure he could do his work. And so my work kind of went by the wayside. So it’s just reinforcing these inequalities that are already in place about women having to do the bulk of the domestic and the emotional labor in the family.

CHAKRABARTI: Just like we did with Rachel when we reconnected with Beth this week, first thing we did, we played that old voicemail back to her. And here’s how Beth reacted.

FOLSOM: That is a trip, because actually it was just after that, I don’t know exactly when that was, but we’re just about at the two-year mark that my husband and I separated. And we’re now divorced. We’re good. We’re good co-parents. We work well together as far as scheduling and, you know, we’re friends. But I have another job now. I have two jobs. So it’s been an interesting ride the last couple of years, for sure.

CHAKRABARTI: Beth lives in Framingham, Massachusetts.

FOLSOM: There is so much that’s built into our social structure, and I don’t want to in any way throw my husband under the bus. A lot of it is my responsibility based on how I was socialized and raised. So I took on so much of that. I just went ahead and made the doctor’s appointments and felt like it was more my responsibility to take time off. And he didn’t have to have interruptions in his career to have children.

CHAKRABARTI: Balancing her jobs and being a mom is still tough. But Beth says she’s making it work because her employer gives her the flexibility to make it work. For example, Beth does go into the office often, but when her son’s school recently was used as a polling place on Election Day, she was able to work from home.

FOLSOM: If I didn’t have people around me at my job who understood those struggles in that kind of balancing act, I don’t know how I could do it. I’m very lucky to have a boss that trusts me to do what I need to do when I can, and doesn’t judge me by how many hours a week I’m sitting at a desk. But what I actually accomplish. And I think that’s empowering in a lot of ways, I know it’s out of necessity, but it ends up feeling good, like you’re trusted to do the job that you were hired to do.

CHAKRABARTI: Beth Folsom in Framingham, Massachusetts. Okay, we’ve got one more for you. Nancy Weindruch. She was on our show on the shecession back in October of 2020. And she had an 18-month-old son at the time. Plus, she was pregnant with her second child. She lived with her husband in Arlington, Virginia, and had recently left her job because, yeah, you guessed it, that lack of child care in the pandemic.

NANCY WEINDRUCH [Tape]: It’ll be really interesting to see once this pandemic passes and once things settle down. And we feel like we do have the opportunities to have childcare that’s reliable and consistent for our son and soon to be baby number two. It’ll be another hard decision as to whether or not I go back to work. As of today, I am 100% determined to go back to work.

CHAKRABARTI: So how’s Nancy doing now? Well, just like with those other women. When we reconnected with Nancy this week, we played that old tape back to her. And here’s how she felt after hearing it.

WEINDRUCH: I feel relief that it’s in the past. It feels like a different world we were living in then at the same time. I don’t know that that much has changed.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in fact, a lot has changed in Nancy’s life. She and her family moved from the D.C. area to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where her husband has family. In addition, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is way cheaper than Washington, D.C., so there’s no longer as much financial pressure on the family. Which means with her two small kids at home, Nancy has for now chosen to be a stay-at-home mom.

WEINDRUCH: I have so many mom friends right now. And it’s because when I go to the library up here compared to in D.C., I’m not surrounded by nannies. I’m surrounded by other mothers, women who have chosen. Most of them I’ve met are educated, have a college degree or more, and have made the decision to stay at home.

And I think together, this small cohort of women outside of the big cities like a D.C. who are, I think, bravely making the decision to leave the workforce and focus on family. I think that together we’re. I’m hoping that we’re fighting the stigma. It’s a real thing in a city like Washington, D.C., I felt insecure about it.

CHAKRABARTI: Nancy told us that she does miss working, but she does not miss what she describes as mom guilt for missing her kids when they needed her.

WEINDRUCH: My leaving the work force has allowed our family to have more balance. But then I’m like, okay, but then does that offset our striving to have an equal workplace with women? You know what I mean? Like, I feel like, okay, so me leaving to get more balance on the home front is perpetuating the imbalance in the workforce.

CHAKRABARTI: So back to what she said to us in 2020 that she was 100% determined to go back to work. Well, now, in 2022, Nancy says she still thinks about going back to work. But if she does, it will be on her terms.

WEINDRUCH: Having the choice is it is a complete luxury. And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t recognize that and feel immense gratitude to be able to have that choice. I didn’t feel like I had the choice to leave the workplace back in 2020, but now I feel like I have the choice to go back when I’m ready and when childcare becomes less of an issue.

CHAKRABARTI: Nancy Weindruch in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. So as you can see, it’s been an interesting two years for each of those women. Their lives and their stories helped shape our understanding of the new analysis from Claudia Goldin on what was really going on with the so-called shecession.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.