The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted the U.S. labor market. The most persistent shortages have been in industries that mostly employ mostly women. While overall employment rebounded to exceed pre-pandemic levels this past July, the health care and education sectors didn’t return to pre-pandemic levels until August. One reason for sluggishness is that women’s overall labor force participation has lagged behind men’s for much of the pandemic recovery. In fact, for women across all sectors, it took until September of this year to exceed pre-pandemic levels of employment. As has been documented, a significant factor in the slow recovery for women, and especially moms, has been challenges related to child care.
Survey data analyzed for this commentary from the U.S. Census Bureau and the University of Southern California indicate that significant challenges remain for women, particularly those employed in nursing and teaching:
- among respondents that identify as parents, mothers across all economic sectors were twice as likely to report that their ability to work was affected by child care compared to fathers;
- within the health care and education sectors, women were 54 percent more likely than men to report that child care responsibilities impacted their ability to work; and
- 11 percent of workers in the health care and education sectors stated that their ability to work was affected by child care responsibilities, compared to 6 percent of workers in other sectors.
These challenges loom large because child care is one of the few sectors that still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary figures for October show that employment in the sector is still 8.5 percent lower than in February of 2020 (see Figure 1). This roughly translates to a shortage of 88,000 jobs. The slow recovery in child care is due to a combination of people choosing to leave the sector for better-compensated jobs, programs that closed during the pandemic not reopening, and other pandemic-related pressures. Data released by Child Care Aware of America found that, during the height of the pandemic nearly 9,000 child care centers and 7,000 home-based programs shut their doors. The persistent shortage in the child care sector has ripple effects across the entire economy.
Because women’s employment is highly dependent on their ability to find child care, and women are over-represented in certain industries, child care shortages have disproportionate impacts on the labor force participation in those industries. The persistent nursing and teacher shortages in particular are especially concerning because of the ripple effects that they have on the health and education of children and families. In fact, nursing shortages have been shown to lead to worse health outcomes for patients, including longer stays and higher mortality rates, just as teacher shortages can lead to students losing out on valuable education experiences.
The persistent shortage in the child care sector has ripple effects across the entire economy.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects data on employment across the U.S. economy, and these data are often reported for “super sectors,” which group together many subsectors. Looking at BLS data for the education and health care super sector shows just how dependent this portion of the economy is on women’s employment. Per BLS, the education and health care super sector is predominantly composed of women, with 77 percent of employees identifying as women. Within the health care services subsector, 79 percent of workers are women, while 64 percent of the employees in the education sector are women.
Even before the pandemic-driven child care shortage, nursing was projected to have shortages due to the growing care needs as the United States population ages. A recent U.S. News and World Report article found that, during 2020 and 2021, the biggest decline in nurses was among those aged 25-44 years old—those in their prime childbearing years. A recent op-ed by a nurse specifically cited the lack of child care as a barrier to retaining mothers in the industry. This flight of younger workers from nursing is a significant problem in that it is setting up a cliff—as the older nurses remaining in the sector retire, without an incoming supply of younger nurses, employment in the sector will plummet. Therefore, it is critical for younger nurses with children to have access to affordable and flexible child care so that they can stay in the industry.
Similarly, widespread teacher shortages have been cited across the country as districts struggle to hire and retain educators. A recent working paper published by the Annenberg Institute estimated a national shortage of 36,000 teachers. One of the most commonly cited challenges with hiring and retaining teachers is the low pay. Low pay makes it especially hard for the 20 percent of teachers with children under the age of 5 to afford child care. As with nursing, the child care crunch makes it difficult for younger teachers to remain in the sector when they have children, setting up a similar cliff—and as older teachers begin to retire, employment in teaching will further collapse.
These professions are the bedrock of our society, and yet, because they employ mostly women, they are more severely affected by our nation’s lack of investment in child care. While there are other systemic issues in nursing and teaching that contribute to shortages in these sectors, such as low wages and demanding career pathways, it is essential to address this key challenge that nurses and teachers both face. While child care investments would benefit all families in the United States, they could distinctly benefit women in the health care and education sectors.
The author would like to thank Hailey Gibbs and Maureen Coffey for their input and review.