Half of U.S. States are Leaving Women Workers Behind

Emergency unemployment aid is doing what it is meant to do: serving as a temporary lifeline while workers search for and return to work. 

federal pandemic unemployment programs
Republican governors of 24 states will block the federal government from supplementing the unemployment benefits provided to employees in their states. (Thomas Cizauskas / Flickr)

After a year that has put parents—especially women—through unimaginable strain as they’ve struggled to keep a roof over their families’ heads and care for their children, Republican governors in 24 states now want to rip out the rug from under them by ending state participation in federal pandemic unemployment programs. 

These states have made the unprecedented decision to pull out early from the $300 pandemic unemployment benefits—needed support for families that was provided entirely by the federal government at no cost to state coffers. Eighteen of these states have also signaled that they will end the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs, which have been crucial for workers that are typically left out of traditional unemployment insurance. As a result, as many as 4 million of the 15.9 million workers currently on benefits (nearly one in four on benefits) will lose aid as early as June 12—a trend that will have significant negative impacts on families and the still fragile U.S. economy. 

The ostensible rationale for these punitive actions is a concern about workers’ hesitance to accept jobs. But recent data indicates that unemployment aid is not keeping workers on the sidelines.

  • Layoffs have fallen dramatically, as new claims for jobless benefits are now down 48 percent since the beginning of the year.
  • The number of workers filing ongoing claims for state benefits has plummeted to 3.68 million—down 36 percent from when the $300 was reinstated at the beginning of the year.
  • PEUC and PUA benefits fell to their lowest levels in three months, dropping by more than two million since March 6: PUA ticked down by 678,000 to 6.6 million and PEUC dropped by 150,000 to 5.1 million—as even those workers with the greatest barriers are finding work.

In other words, emergency unemployment aid is doing what it is meant to do: serving as a temporary lifeline while workers search for and return to work. 

Aid must continue until the recovery is much further along, especially for women who have born the burden of the COVID “she-cession.” In February 2021, women’s labor force participation was at 57 percent, the lowest it has been since 1988. As of April 2021, nearly 2 million women have left the labor force within the last year, marking a little more than a year of the pandemic. The pandemic has hit Black women and Latinas particularly hard: More than one in 12 adult Black women and nearly one in 13 adult Latinas were unemployed in April 2021.

The pandemic has exacerbated the national child care crisis that has made it harder for women to stay in the labor force, continue to work at the same level of hours, or advance in their careers. A recent survey by The Hamilton Project found 16 percent of mothers with young children reported that someone in their household left their job to undertake child care responsibilities in 2020, and in those cases, 70 percent were the mothers themselves who left their job for child care responsibilities. We all lose when women are left behind, with the U.S. economy at risk of losing an estimated $64.5 billion in additional wages and economic activity. 

COVID-19 laid bare issues that existed pre-pandemic: The United States has never built the care infrastructure needed, and for decades the U.S. has consistently fallen behind peer nations when it comes to female labor force participation. Those working in child care, nearly all of whom are women, also feel squeezed. In a December 2020 survey of child care workers, more than half of respondents reported that they are losing money every day they remain open and one in seven child care jobs have been lost since the pandemic. Child care jobs are disproportionately held by women of color, a group which has suffered major job losses across the board during COVID-19, making an equitable recovery from the pandemic even more crucial.

And now, unemployed women in 24 states are being tasked with an impossible challenge: Go find a job while you have no one to look after your kids. The American Rescue Plan funds promise to prop up the child care sector, but the funds have not even gotten out the door in most states and these 24 governors are not giving that aid a chance to succeed.

Unemployed women in 24 states are being tasked with an impossible challenge: Go find a job while you have no one to look after your kids.

It’s too soon to cut off the life preserver keeping working moms afloat. Yes, 285 million vaccine doses have been given, and yes, job losses are no longer as dire as they once were earlier in the pandemic. But, two out of five school districts are either virtual or hybrid learning, meaning many kids are still not physically in school and their parents are scrambling to find options while they learn remotely. Regardless of employment status, married or cohabiting women and single women reported bearing the brunt of child care responsibilities and are most likely to be the one to take time out of paid work to care for children. Making matters worse, most of the states pulling out of expanded UI programs would deny workers regular state UI benefits if they could not work because they lost child care.  

While one recent study concluded that parental employment had not dropped further than other groups, multiple additional studies found that labor force participation (including looking for work) had dropped steeply especially for mothers with young children. And, the bottom line is that research indicates that if the goal is drawing more working parents into the job market, it won’t be solved without reopening schools and increasing access to affordable child care.

After an unprecedented year, the U.S. labor market is now steadily returning to normal, with programs like unemployment benefits having played a major role in preventing poverty among the jobless. But rather than allowing workers a chance to receive critical aid until jobs and infrastructure like child care have more widely returned, policymakers have left the unemployed, particularly women, fully on their own, creating bigger gaps between the haves and have-nots. 

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About , and

Andrew Stettner is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
Ellie Kaverman is an intern at The Century Foundation.
Julie Kashen is director of women’s economic justice and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a leading progressive think tank. She is one of the nation’s leading experts on the issues affecting working families, having authored numerous studies on childcare, paid leave, equal pay and other topics.