NOEL KING, HOST:
This time last year, around 20 million people were out of work. Now, as the economy recovers, employers say they can't find anyone to hire. Still, millions of women have yet to return to work. NPR's Andrea Hsu talked with two of them.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: For more than 20 years, Katherine Gaines worked as a legal assistant in Washington, D.C. She had a reputation for excelling at everything.
KATHERINE GAINES: Documents, filings, briefs, scanning - whatever they needed done, I was the go-to person.
HSU: She even once planned an attorney's wedding. Early last year, her law firm downsized. And she was laid off. She quickly applied to some temp agencies and got an assignment. But then...
GAINES: COVID kicked in. Nobody had anything for me to go to.
HSU: In a way, it was a blessing. She had recently moved in with her mom, who has Alzheimer's. Taking care of her was a full-time job. Finding an actual job in the pandemic was daunting.
GAINES: I knew I couldn't work in retail because I knew I couldn't be exposed and bring it home to my mother. So I just had to just be hopeful, sit and wait. I always say, God didn't bring me this far to drop me off.
HSU: Earlier this year, Gaines moved her mother into a nursing home. And now she's applying for jobs again. She'd prefer to work from home But is OK with going into a COVID-safe workplace. Most importantly, she wants to find something that would allow her to take her mom to doctor's appointments and check in on her frequently. Gaines herself is 62 now. She's willing to hunt a little longer for the right job, at least until her unemployment benefits run out.
GAINES: I'm giving myself at least until August. That's when I'll really hit the grind.
HSU: Caregiving responsibilities are one reason labor economists think women are not returning to the workforce in droves. But Stephanie Aaronson of the Brookings Institution says other things are at play, too.
GAINES: I think it's just a complex mix of factors that are keeping women out of the labor force right now.
HSU: Ongoing concerns about the virus, some industries still struggling to recover and a change of heart about how people want to spend their time. She says women often make decisions that end up sticking. So a woman who decided to stay home with children in the pandemic might stay out of the workforce for years.
STEPHANIE AARONSON: So I think that the recovery for female labor force participation could just be slow.
HSU: Across the country in Los Angeles, Valerie Mekki had been working in fashion merchandising for 18 years. Her most recent job was with a company that made uniforms for grocery stores and restaurants. She was laid off in April as the pandemic crushed the entire apparel industry.
VALERIE MEKKI: No one was hiring.
HSU: She applied for job after job last year and kept getting ghosted. But her teenage children, they were optimistic from the start.
MEKKI: They had seen me work so hard in the fashion industry. And so to them, it was like, but you're going to figure it out.
HSU: Last fall, Mekki started a side hustle, a blog to build up her online skills. She learned about things like search engine optimization. She wrote about a topic she knew well, figuring out what to do when you've lost your job. Recently, she started picking up a few freelance writing gigs. Now she's hoping to convert that into a career even if it means taking a huge pay cut. And she's heard about other women doing the same.
MEKKI: I think it really - during this time, it gave us that permission to really think about our future.
HSU: But career changes take time. So full-time employment could still be a ways off.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
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