(TNS) — Tanisha Loyd, a Detroit mom of two, has been on leave from her job in customer service since mid-September, without pay or benefits.

Loyd, 29, remains at home full time with her children — keeping her kindergartner on track with online school and caring for her 1-year-old. She doesn't have the option to work from home and doesn't expect to return to work until Jan. 4. But even that depends on if her child's school is in person or remains virtual.

Loyd says the pandemic is a "battle" for working moms, forcing her to choose between a job to help sustain her household or being there for her children. Child care is not easy to come by either and even when it is available, it can be expensive, she said.

"I had to take a step back in my job, my career, just so I can make sure that the family is good. That's just how life goes," she said. Loyd is not alone. The pandemic's economic upheaval has been especially tough for working moms. Across the country, more than 800,000 women left the workforce in September, compared with 216,000 men.

Last month, the unemployment rate for women dropped, but there are still nearly 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce than in February. Black and Latina women have disproportionately faced the brunt of job losses.

In Michigan, labor force participation among women fell nearly 6 percent, compared with a drop of less than 1 percent among men, according to unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After decades of strides in employment, women are making a staggering exit from the workforce due to the pandemic. Experts say the shift may lead to challenges for women finding work and they may face lower wages in the future.

"Overall, the labor force today paints a picture of a slowing recovery — one where women are struggling to get a foothold back in the economy," Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, said. "And that is likely to cause permanent labor market scarring more among women than among men, and as a result the effects of this could linger with us for years, if not decades to come."

A Gendered Shutdown

Shardaya Fuquay, 30, is juggling the demands of being a stay-at-home parent and running a local nonprofit.

After the pandemic hit Michigan in March, Fuquay's organization Journey to Healing, which offers resources for families and children experiencing grief and trauma, came up short on its budget this year — about $25,000 — because it wasn't able to secure as many grants and contracts due to COVID-19.

The organization is also adjusting to providing services — like art therapy — to clients online.

Fuquay is a mother of two and expecting a third child. The pandemic has forced her to make time for meetings to run her nonprofit, all while helping her 2- and 3-year-old children with online classes and preparing meals for them.

"They can't go over to grandma or a cousin's house because it's just dangerous." Fuquay said, noting how that limits the time she can spend on her nonprofit.

"It's just nonstop balancing, nonstop stress," she said.

About 76 percent of mothers with children under age 10 said child care is one of their top three challenges during the pandemic, according to a September report by McKinsey & Co.

Across metro Detroit, parents have had trouble accessing child care because of health risks, work-from-home routines and the challenge of finding day care employees. That's the case nationally, too.

"The Detroit metro area — certainly in Detroit proper — (was) a child care desert prior to COVID-19. Then, with COVID-19, we saw the child care sector and the child care market in Michigan suffer tremendously," Eboni Taylor, executive director of Mothering Justice in Michigan, said.

Business sectors that tend to employ women are suffering. The pandemic spurred a "gendered shutdown," Stevenson said. Women made up 53 percent of workers in the leisure and hospitality sector in February but they accounted for 57 percent of the initial jobs cut in March. By April, nearly half the jobs in the sector had disappeared from payrolls and women once again made up a disproportionate share of the jobs cut.

The economic fallout has been particularly hard on women of color. About 57 percent Latina women and 53 percent of Black women said they lost income since March, compared with 40 percent of white women, according to an October report from the National Women's Law Center. About one in 11 Black women and Latinas remained unemployed.

Female-owned small businesses are suffering, too.

"Prior to the pandemic I think we were making real progress, we were seeing our numbers go up every year — more women were starting businesses, more women were getting better jobs," Carolyn Cassin, president and CEO of Michigan Women Forward, said. "We were seeing that they were able to advance in a way that they hadn't in the past. But the pandemic brought all of that to a screeching halt."

About 90 percent of the 196 businesses Michigan Women Forward invests in closed their doors, at least temporarily, during the early days of the pandemic.

Mai Xiong is a small-business owner and mom who started Mai & Co., in 2018 to sell clothing and home decor featuring traditional Hmong prints. Xiong, a recently elected Macomb County commissioner, opened her first brick-and-mortar store in Warren last year.

Xiong had to close her storefront in March and reopened in June. The store is open three days a week now, as Xiong juggled her business, her children's online schooling and running for local office.

Xiong, 35, has seen a 90 percent dip in foot traffic but she has kept her business afloat by selling thousands of hand-sewn masks and relying on grants and loans. Sales have started to pick back up online, too. A $5,000 grant and $10,000 loan, where half is forgiven, from Michigan Women Forward will help cover expenses like rent through the end of this year for Xiong.

Still, she worries about January.

"My kids come first, before the business. ... They're my No. 1 priority and so we have to kind of prioritize our responsibilities," Xiong said.

How to Keep Women in the Workforce

By the end of 2019, women achieved a milestone in the labor market. They held more nonfarm payroll jobs than men in December 2019, Stevenson said. But pandemic job losses rapidly undid that progress. It could have long-lasting effects.

"What we know is that when people take time out of the labor force or face long-term unemployment — so more than six months — they're unlikely to go back to wages that are similar to what they were earning before. They tend to be on a lower earnings trajectory," she said.

Michigan Women Forward put together a $1.5 million "resilience fund" for women business owners to weather the pandemic. It helped 200 businesses but there are still 900 women who submitted applications that the fund wasn't able to support, Cassin said in September.

"It's definitely going to take change at a policy level, at an institutional workplace level, at a cultural level to address all of these issues," said Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at the National Women's Law Center.

What does policy change look like? Raghu said government should invest in an accessible and affordable child care system. Michigan's new budget includes more funding for child care providers and working parents in the state, though advocates have said it's a temporary measure and not the long-term overhaul of the child care system they want to see.

Change in policy also includes offering paid family and sick leave, experts say. Some states like Michigan now have sick leave rules in place but advocacy groups like Mothering Justice are pushing for expansions like requiring businesses with fewer than 10 employees to offer paid leave and businesses providing workers one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

The federal government's COVID-19 response includes paid leave of up to 80 hours, for companies with fewer than 500 employees. Advocates have said that this leaves some employees out and ends in December, unless Congress agrees on another relief bill.

Employers should be more flexible with scheduling and remote options, and be more mindful of the disparate ways the pandemic has affected both women and men who are caregivers, Raghu said.

"Culturally we have to move beyond this notion of women having to be the primary caregivers, and making sure that those responsibilities are distributed," she said.

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