Weekly unemployment claims fell to a pandemic-era low for a second week, as jobs increased and less workers filed first-time unemployment claims. The numbers indicate that the market recovery is speeding up, and that the April jobs report will likely be strong. First-time claims totaled 547,000 for the week ending April 17, about 50,000 lower than economists expected. CNBC reported that the hiring momentum could push job creation above 1 million this month. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research published a report entitled “From Mancession to Shecession: Women’s Employment in Regular and Pandemic Recessions,” which examined the relative impact of the pandemic-caused global recession on women’s employment. The paper concluded that “the pandemic recession of 2020 was a shecession in most countries with larger employment declines among women.” The composition of women’s employment across industries, as well as increased childcare needs during school and daycare closures, which had a bigger impact on mothers than on fathers, helped explain the patterns. 

The report demonstrated the impact of school closures on the labor market, and highlighted the central role of telecommuting: “gender gaps in the employment impact of the pandemic arise almost entirely among workers who are unable to work from home.” Nevertheless, the report identified a different kind of gender gap that arose among telecommuters – women working from home dedicated more work time to child-care, and experienced greater productivity reductions than men. 

The findings are significant because the post-pandemic normal is likely to have permanent changes in the labor market, such as a wider availability of work-from-home options and other forms of employment flexibility. These changes are likely to result in persistent changes in women’s and men’s labor force participation and will shape gender inequalities in the labor market.

As such, the pandemic is likely to bring about workplace changes that have the potential for reduced gender inequality in the labor market. For this potential to be realized, however, workplace changes are insufficient; social norms and expectations must shift so that mothers and fathers make more equal use of the added workplace flexibility. Otherwise, the report concludes, “the strain of failing to do full justice to work, family, and self-maintenance needs that was shared by many workers during the pandemic will continue to be the reality of many working mothers in the new normal.” 

The report highlights the importance of investments in the “care economy” for women in the labor market. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Bloomberg researchers Molly Kinder and Martha Ross argued for the vital importance of investing in the nation’s “care infrastructure.” The care infrastructure, they argued, is vital for women, workers with disabilities, families, and the economy as a whole.

The op-ed highlights the major funding that Biden’s American Jobs Plan pours into the country’s caregiving infrastructure, including home care for older people and persons with disabilities, and child-care centers. Biden’s forthcoming second plan is also expected to invest in  universal preschool, affordable child care and paid family leave. In other words, “the care economy is being recognized for what it is: invisible scaffolding that allows American workers to actually get the job done.” It provides the foundation for Americans to support their families and perform their jobs.

The pandemic revealed the weaknesses in this foundation when schools and child centers closed, informal grandparent-provided childcare became unsafe, and nursing homes became dangerous. As the “shecession” revealed, women shouldered much of the economic costs, emotional labor and responsibility for care. A strong care economy is overdue, and amidst the pandemic, essential for economic recovery and job growth.