Who's getting left behind in the COVID-19 recovery?

Here’s the biggest takeaways from the pandemic’s impact on the job market.

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Tanza Loudenback, CFP®Contributing Reporter & Certified Financial Planner™Tanza Loudenback, CFP® is a contributing reporter and Certified Financial Planner™ at Policygenius, where she covers personal finance and insurance news. Previously, she was a senior reporter and correspondent at Business Insider.

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The U.S. economy may be on the path to recovery, but some of the most vulnerable workers are being left behind. 

Women, people of color, and people with lower levels of education have historically had the highest unemployment rates. The pandemic maintained that trend and in some cases made it worse, according to a 2021 COVID-19 and jobs report by researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy.

The researchers analyzed employment data from the U.S. Census Bureau and highlighted how changes in the job market affected different populations between February 2020 and June 2021. Here are three of their biggest takeaways and what it means for the future of work.

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Fewer women are working

Looking at the unemployment rate alone obscures the impact of the pandemic on working women. In June 2021, the unemployment rate — which includes people who are jobless but actively searching for work — for women and men, respectively, was 6.3% and 6.2%. 

“In this regard, the unemployment rate of women looks comparable to that of men, but it hides the large number of women who have exited the labor force and are no longer counted in the computation of the unemployment rate,” the researchers wrote

Women who were working in February 2020 were more likely to leave the workforce by June 2021 than men — 4.5 women left for every one man. Some of this can be explained by the sharp increase in child care responsibilities. Nearly one in four parents said in a Policygenius survey that they either scaled back or quit work entirely to care for a child. 

Even before the pandemic, moms were spending more than twice as much time as dads caring for children during an average week, according to Pew Research Center. With school and daycare closures that lasted into 2021, many working moms were forced to make a choice between their job and their household when the balancing act became impossible to maintain.

Working from home isn’t an option for everyone 

Shortly after the first COVID-19 surge, the struggles Americans faced as they adjusted to working from home seemed universal: spotty internet connections, no water cooler talk, and invisible boundaries between office life and home life. Despite the challenges, the data is clear: Working from home was, and still is, a privilege.

Between April 2020 and June 2021, mostly white, highly educated people were able to work from home, while mostly Black and Latino workers continued to lose jobs or risk their health working frontline jobs. 

People of color are overrepresented in frontline jobs, which the Center for Economic and Policy Research describes as positions in grocery and convenience stores, public transit, custodial services, and health care, among other essential businesses. This is often shift work with little flexibility that needs to be performed in person. Workers had to keep showing up or lose their paycheck.

Across Black, white, and Latino populations, women were more likely to work remotely during the pandemic than men. This points to the fact that women were more likely to be responsible for providing child care, the Carsey School of Public Policy researchers said, rather than the idea that women have more prestigious or tech-friendly jobs. Yet, disadvantages persisted when filtering for race/ethnicity — many women of color with less education were unable to work from home.

Less educated workers lost more jobs

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, the researchers found there to be a critical association between a worker’s level of education and their employment status. 

Among people age 25 and older, the number of those with a job dropped by around 6.4 million from February 2020 to June 2021. While people without college degrees only made up 58% of the civilian workforce before the pandemic, they comprised three-fourths of the jobless group in June. In other words, the pandemic pushed less-educated workers out of jobs, or the workforce altogether, at a higher rate.

All told, more older people retired during the pandemic than in previous years. Still, it was more common among highly educated workers. The number of retirees with college degrees increased by 11% compared to an increase of 5.8% for those without college degrees. 

Finding a job in today’s workforce

Since the Carsey School of Public Policy’s report was published in September, Americans have slowly been returning to the workforce and securing jobs. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.9% in December, over 2% lower than in June.

The labor landscape has changed dramatically since the pandemic hit. Job seekers can use some of these new developments to their advantage.

Now that teleworking has become the norm in some industries, for example, many companies are expanding their applicant pool. That’s good news for job seekers who live outside of big cities. If working from home is appealing to you, try searching for jobs on platforms like LinkedIn, Monster, and Indeed by skill set rather than location. 

On the flip side, more than 90% of companies surveyed by Harvard Business School now use automated tools in their recruiting. That means job candidates who don’t have the perfect profile or resume can be filtered out haphazardly. 

Avoid getting overlooked by the bots by tailoring your resume to the specific job you’re applying for and matching the keywords in your resume or cover letter to those used in the job description. If you can manage to find a contact for someone inside the company, reach out. Human connection goes a long way.

If you’re still struggling to find work, consider reaching out to a staffing agency to help with the heavy lifting (here’s a directory). Employers pay recruiters when they find the right person for a job, so they’re motivated to get you hired at no cost to you.

Image: Luis Alvarez / Getty

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