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Employment levels for prime-age workers have been greatly reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The decline has fallen disproportionately on females, especially compared to past recessions, and the presence of young children is a driving factor in this differential response. This article identifies the impact of gender, young children, and the presence of a spouse on the attachment to employment for individuals who were employed immediately prior to the pandemic. Compared to the Great Recession and the most recent expansionary period in 2019, women with young children have a relatively lower level of attachment to employment in the pandemic than men and females without children. In addition, women with very young children, who accounted for 10 percent of the prepandemic workforce, accounted for almost a quarter of the unanticipated, or COVID-related, decline in employment. Taken together, these results suggest that children—and perhaps the ability to access quality childcare—are playing a different, and more significant, role than in past recessions and recoveries.

Key finding:

  1. Women with children under age 6, who made up 10 percent of the prepandemic workforce, account for almost a quarter of the unanticipated employment loss related to COVID-19.
  2. This research, along with supporting evidence, suggests that daycare limitations, rather than school closings, appear to be a constraining factor on the availability of workers to fill open positions in the current economy.

Center Affiliation: Center for Human Capital Studies

JEL classification: J13, J16, J22

Key words: employment, COVID-19, childcare


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