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More than a million people gave up looking for work last month. And women left the workforce at four times the rate men did. The exodus was particularly striking among Latinas. As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, this could be a drag on the broader economy.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Farida Mercedes' career has always been a big part of her identity. For almost two decades, she worked long days, rising to become an assistant vice president at the cosmetics company L'Oreal. Once she had kids, Mercedes made it a point to be home for dinner. But she never imagined being home full time.
FARIDA MERCEDES: I respect stay-at-home moms. But it just wasn't part of my DNA. I love the hustle. I love being hungry and passionate. And I love my children. But I just couldn't see myself out of that.
HORSLEY: The pandemic changed that. Work became extra stressful when L'Oreal's sales dropped. And Mercedes, who was in HR, had to lay people off. Family life was even tougher. Her husband's a guard at New York's Rikers Island jail. He stayed away from home for a month for fear of passing the virus on to his family. Her son struggled with home schooling. And Mercedes found herself crying almost every day. So in late August, she gave up her corporate job.
MERCEDES: My family needs me. So I made the really hard decision to be home with them. And it's exactly where I need to be.
HORSLEY: It's a story many women can relate to. Latina women in particular maintain a traditional view of mom as the primary caregiver.
MERCEDES: Now, my mom, for all my life, worked two jobs. But there's something about, in a Latino home, the matriarch, the mother, that needs to be home that does contribute to that.
HORSLEY: Many Latinas also work in industries that have been hammered by the pandemic. As hundreds of thousands of women dropped out of the workforce in September, Latinas led the way, leaving at nearly three times the rate of white women and more than four times the rate of African Americans. Sabrina Castillo says, before the pandemic, she felt like she had a good balance between her job with the campaign finance board in New York and her two kids. Now it feels like a tug-of-war as she coaches her 5-year-old through online classes while trying to manage a workplace team.
SABRINA CASTILLO: I'm embarrassed to say this. But, like, I'm a week behind on (laughter) kindergarten homework. I can't give my kids the attention they need, continue to give my team the energy and focus and fulfill myself with things that really bring joy to me. And I'm also married. So (laughter) like, there's a lot of roles there that - something has to give.
HORSLEY: Castillo is leaving the job she's held for eight years right after the November election. As someone who came to this country as an infant from El Salvador, she says it was not an easy decision.
CASTILLO: In our culture, in my culture, like, leaving a really good 9-5 is not something you do.
HORSLEY: Not everyone has a choice. Maria Silva is a single mom who was furloughed from her job as a teaching assistant in Vancouver, Wash. She's applied for food stamps and sold her car to pay bills. Even if her job reopens, Silva does not expect to go back to work so long as her daughter and autistic son are schooling from home.
MARIA SILVA: I'm a full-time mom. And I'm a part-time employee. But when there's a pandemic or situation like this, it's impossible to do either way.
HORSLEY: Economist Marie Mora of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, says the pandemic has reversed a three-decade trend of Latinas joining the workforce in large numbers. Mora warns the rapid exit of so many women could be a drag on future economic growth.
MARIE MORA: It isn't just about what's happening with Latinas or Hispanic communities. It's actually - it does have effects for the national labor force.
HORSLEY: If the pandemic is controlled quickly, Mora says, Latina women may soon go back to work. But the longer it drags on, the greater the danger that people will lose skills and experience and possibly drop out for good. Some women are adapting, starting home businesses and looking for ways to be productive outside the normal 9-5 schedule. Mercedes, who left her job at L'Oreal, says, in a strange way, the pandemic has given her space to imagine something different.
MERCEDES: It's no longer the VP title. It's, how do I build a life that allows me to spend more time doing the things that I love, being with the people that I love? How can I create that for myself?
HORSLEY: Mercedes realized just how much her outlook had changed this fall when she got a recruiting call from Google, which had always been her dream job. After a month as a stay-at-home mom, she turned it down.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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