How to Get 4 Million Women Back in the Workforce

How to Get 4 Million Women Back in the Workforce

How to Get 4 Million Women Back in the Workforce

Wendy Chun-Hoon, the new head of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, talks about how the Biden administration should seize this moment to prevent women from being locked out of the labor force for good.


Wendy Chun-Hoon is one of the many fresh faces coming in to the federal government with the new Biden administration. She is the new director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, but she spent her prior career fighting for economic justice in a variety of nonprofits. Before joining the administration she served as executive director of Family Values @ Work, an organization that advocates for paid leave policies at the county, city, and state level, which she helped found just as California became the first state to enact its own paid family leave program. When she realized that many of the paid leave policies she was fighting for could exclude her and her female partner, she developed the Family Justice Network to fight to make these policies inclusive of many different kinds of families. We discussed the economic crisis facing American women and the kinds of policies they need to recover. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert: You’ve joined an administration that has explicitly focused on women’s employment, while at the same time presiding over what has become perhaps the worst economic crisis women have ever faced. What are your greatest concerns about women in the workforce right now?

Wendy Chun-Hoon: The thing that I find absolutely alarming is 4.2 million fewer women in the workforce than a year ago. I want to unpack that a little bit because oftentimes I hear still in the news folks citing [the figure that] 2 million women are no longer working. But there are another 2 million plus who are unemployed [according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s definition], meaning they’re actively looking—but they’re struggling. Last Friday’s jobs numbers did have a slight uptick, but we’ve got a long way to go.

I’m really focused on what it’s going to take to get those 4.2 million back in. Women’s labor force participation rates are down to what they were three generations ago. And we need to further understand that this is much worse for women of color.

From a mom’s perspective, that’s where my head is. We’re all living under one roof trying to do four jobs at once. Your day job, I’m now the teacher, taking care of my household, all of it. There are 1.6 million fewer moms in the workforce and it’s absolutely worse for moms of color. That is quite alarming.

BC: Like you just said, there are people who have lost their jobs and are trying to find new ones and then there are people who have stepped out of paid work altogether. Both of these problems are impacting women. What are the forces you see behind these trends?

WCH: Before I came to the Women’s Bureau I thought a lot about things like paid leave and child care and what we are calling the care economy or care infrastructure. Not having those kinds of supports had been perpetuating a lot of bad economic outcomes for women for a long time. And it just cracked wide open in Covid.

We have something major to do not just on what was always missing in terms of the care infrastructure, which absolutely creates and exacerbates the problem in this moment, but also on big things like occupational segregation—the fact that women are concentrated in low-paying jobs. Women are two-thirds of those working in low paid jobs, two out of three workers earning less than $25,000 a year. That is a poverty level wage for a family of four. That needs to get a lot better. That was the case before Covid, and what’s happened during Covid is a lot of the jobs in which women are overrepresented are in sectors that were hard hit: leisure, hospitality, education, health, child care. We have a lot to do to make it better.

BC: The 2008 recession and most, if not all, recessions before it hit men hardest first. This one has been very different. Has that different dynamic and focus on women’s employment changed the way this country sees women in the workforce? Has it changed the conversation?

WCH: I hope so. I hope so. [Laughs] Yes, I absolutely hope so. I believe it. I heard our own [Labor] Secretary [Marty Walsh] talking about women’s labor force participation this morning on Morning Joe. Is it top of mind? I think it is, absolutely, and squarely in the top priority. So yes, that conversation has changed.

When September of last year hit, and everybody started talking about the she-cession, schools weren’t opening, parents had gone too long [without school and child care], mostly moms—it became a breaking point. That was an important moment. It became incredibly clear that we have to fix this; these are not individual problems that individual moms or women or parents are facing, this is a structural issue that has long been present. The awareness just became top of mind. These are not personal problems or challenges, these are structural issues that require a structural, systemic response.  So, yes, things have permanently changed and the attention is squarely on them.

BC: What can the Department of Labor, and you in your role leading the Women’s Bureau, do to help women in the workforce during this crisis?

WCH: The response has to be twofold. There’s good opportunity to break apart that occupational segregation, getting women robustly onto pathways into good jobs. The American Jobs Plan [has] the potential to do that and do that at scale.

Then if you look at care jobs, the jobs where women and specifically women of color have been concentrated, [they are] occupations that pay some of the lowest wages on the market. [We have to] really make sure that those jobs become good jobs. We talked a lot in March about what drives the gender wage gap because March 21 is Equal Pay Day—or Unequal Pay Day, we should say. One of the pieces of evidence about what drives the gender wage gap is that [in occupations] where women are dominant, the wages are actually just lower. Fixing wages and “upwaging” those jobs will actually make it better for workers whether they’re women or not but especially for women who are concentrated in those jobs.

So really, we’re paying attention to both ends of the spectrum. Pathways to good jobs, making sure that women are robustly connecting into those. And also where women are the majority of the workforce, making sure those are good jobs.

We [also] have to fix the things that absolutely perpetuate bad outcomes for women and parents and caregivers—things like lack of paid leave, lack of sufficient child care, elder care, gaps in unemployment insurance that are gender-based.

BC: The things you’re talking about—the gender wage gap, occupational segregation, a lack of supports for working parents—existed before the pandemic, and they are stubborn and have been difficult to change. What new approaches from this new administration could actually make a difference?

WCH: First of all, I see an absolute commitment from the administration, the president, vice president. When they were in campaign mode they were robustly talking about these issues and are committed to them. That first and foremost is positive and exciting. Seeing for example how the American Rescue Plan [had] a serious commitment to stabilizing child care and trying to make sure we don’t lose any more of it—a focus on really significant increases in spending, though temporary, is significant. [Editor’s note: The bill included $39 billion for child care relief.] We’re thinking about how that money starts to hit the ground, making sure that parents and providers are aware of what’s available, making sure that we are taking up those benefits to their maximum potential over the next several months and years.

I would say the same about the tax credit for the emergency paid leave included in the American Rescue Plan. [Editor’s note: While the mandate to provide paid leave in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March 2020 is no longer in effect, the tax credits to help employers cover the cost of providing leave remain.] Importantly, we have to make sure the word is out about them and people still know that they’re available, both workers and employers. [We have to] really do everything we can to make sure that that support is reaching people in this moment.

Looking forward to at least the principles in broad strokes of the American Jobs Plan, [there is a] real commitment to home care workers and the elder and disability care workforce and the need, absolute need that families have. Four hundred billion dollars into the care economy—that’s huge, significant, important, and important to get right. That will mean making sure that home care workers are paid enough to really thrive in the work that they’re doing. It is the work that stands up the entire economy, the work, in the words of [National Domestic Workers Alliance founder] Ai-Jen Poo, that makes all other work possible. Those are really important investments.

BC: I’m sure you’ve seen that already President Biden’s American Jobs Plan infrastructure package has kicked off a somewhat heated debate about what counts as infrastructure. Do you think that things like child care, elder care, paid leave count as infrastructure?

WCH: I do. Making sure that these jobs are good jobs, making sure there’s adequate access, making sure we’re laying down the foundation for a new way of working and a new way of supporting families, workers, the economy, yeah, I absolutely think that that’s infrastructure.

BC: On the flip side, there is some concern from child care and paid leave advocates that most of the investment is going to come in a second policy package and that political will will fade, price tags will start to scare people, and the rest of this won’t become reality. What do you say to those concerns?

WCH: I think the president has been very clear about his commitment to things like elder care, child care, paid leave. The administration’s been very clear about that commitment both as part of the campaign, as part of early days in office, and through the most recent expressions in these incredible, historic packages that are coming out and the principles that are underlying them. I think there’s a strong commitment.

BC: Are you worried that some of the things that have hurt women’s employment in the pandemic—be it a lack of child care or service sector jobs that had to abruptly shut down or scale back—will dampen women’s employment long after the crisis eases?

WCH: We have a window. There’s an important window that we must rise to and take advantage of so that there isn’t more lasting damage when we’re at labor force participation levels for women of three generations ago. We have to work quickly, with urgency, and rise to the occasion of all the opportunity, all the dynamism in the market and in the workplace, and make sure that this moment won’t have lasting impact that takes us back and holds back generations to come.

I am feeling absolute urgency about it. I think it is absolutely possible. There’s a huge amount of commitment. We need to move swiftly to take advantage of this moment.

It’s time to get to work. We have a huge and really important challenge in front of us and we’re ready to rise to the occasion.

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