On the day in April 2020 that Valerie Mekki lost her job, she was scared to share the bad news with her children. So she hid in her room for 45 minutes.
"I just didn't want to face them," says Mekki, who worked in fashion merchandising for more than 18 years and was the sole provider of health insurance for her family. "I had the shame and the guilt."
But her teenagers surprised her with their optimism.
"They had seen me work so hard in the fashion industry. To them, it was like — you're going to figure it out," she says.
More than a year later, Mekki is still figuring it out. She is among millions of women who have yet to return to work full time, despite an economic recovery boosted by the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and falling rates of coronavirus infection.
Labor economists say it's hard to point to any single reason why 1.8 million fewer women are in the labor force than before the coronavirus pandemic or why in a country that's now facing labor shortages, so many women remain unemployed.
"I think it's just a complex mix of factors," says Stephanie Aaronson, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "Some of those could start to subside as the economy recovers, and jobs come back, and schools reopen, and the health situation improves."
But a return to pre-pandemic levels could take a long time, in part because women tend to stick with the decisions they've made. A mother who decided to stay home with her children in the pandemic may end up out of the workforce for years, Aaronson says. "So I think that the recovery for female labor force participation could just be slow."
Katherine Gaines says finding work was never a problem for her before the pandemic. For more than 20 years, she worked as a legal assistant in Washington, D.C., handling deadline tasks for high-powered attorneys.
"Whatever they needed done, I was the go-to person," she says. She even planned an attorney's wedding once.
In January 2020, her law firm downsized, and she was laid off. She quickly applied to some temp agencies and got an assignment that ended at just about the time that the pandemic hit. Then the work dried up.
"Nobody had anything for me to go to," she says.
It was a blessing in a way. She had recently moved in with her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. Taking care of her was a full-time job. She thought about looking for work outside the legal field but was afraid of catching COVID-19.
"I knew I couldn't work in retail, because I couldn't be exposed and bring it home to my mother," she says. "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.' "
This year, Gaines moved her mother into a nursing home. Now she's starting to apply for jobs again, but this time around, she's being more selective. At 62, she doesn't want to get back into what she calls "that crazy part" of the legal field — the long hours and intense deadlines.
She'd prefer to work from home but is willing to go into an office, as long as precautions are in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. More importantly, she wants to find a job that would still allow her to take her mother to doctor's appointments and check in on her frequently at the nursing home. She's willing to hunt a little longer for the right job, at least until her unemployment benefits run out.
"I'm giving myself at least until August. That's when I'll really hit the grind," says Gaines.
Mekki thought her last job was relatively stable. She worked for a company that designed and sold uniforms worn by grocery store and restaurant workers. The pandemic crushed the apparel industry. No one was hiring.
Last year, Mekki applied for job after job, only to be ghosted by employers. With her confidence waning, she decided to start a blog as a way to make herself more marketable. She wanted to show prospective employers that she could keep up in the digital space. She learned about things like search engine optimization and wrote about a topic close to her heart: figuring out what to do after you've lost your job.
Her family has stayed afloat financially on a combination of unemployment insurance benefits, her husband's earnings — he owns a personal fitness gym and has been running private sessions in clients' yards — and as of this spring, a few freelance writing gigs. She now hopes to get a full-time job as a writer, even though she knows it would pay a fraction of what she was earning before the pandemic.
"Maybe just a quarter of what I used to make," she says. Still, she thinks it'd be worthwhile if the job came with health insurance.
Mekki, who is 42, says the pandemic made her realize she had aged out of the fashion industry. She now wants to pursue other passions, something she has heard from other women as well.
"A lot of people had a lot of time to think about what direction they wanted to take after they came out of the pandemic," she says. "Everyone has been gifted this time to sit down and really think about what they want to do next."
The Labor Department's latest employment report showed 204,000 women returned to the labor force in May, driven by gains in leisure and hospitality and education and health services, sectors in which women make up a majority of workers. But it's not clear whether job gains will continue at that pace.
At the beginning of the recovery, the majority of people returning to work were people who had been laid off temporarily, says Julia Pollak, a labor economist with ZipRecruiter. Now she says 70% of people coming off unemployment benefits are going to new employers.
"That just takes longer — to find a job, to interview for a job, and to go through the entire hiring process," she says, adding that it takes time to gain new skills and build new networks.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "INGOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.