Millions of American Women are Long-Term Unemployed — and It's Wreaking Havoc on Their Health

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc around the world. While March 2021 saw employment numbers climb, the unemployment rate still sits at six percent across the country, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Improvements in the labor market were largely led by gains in leisure and hospitality, construction, and public and private education. But it's not enough.

“We’re seeing over a third of the unemployed have now been long-term unemployed,” Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told Bloomberg. “That’s going to be continuing to rise.”

According to the aforementioned report, more than four million unemployed Americans (or 41.5 percent of the total number of unemployed workers) have been out of work now for at least 27 weeks. This is the marker of long-term unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it's adversely affecting women.

In fact, women have lost a combined 5.4 million jobs during the COVID crisis, compared to men's 4.4 million jobs lost, according to Center for American Progress. And, among unemployed women of at least 20 years old, nearly two in five have been out of work for at least six months. That's half a year (or more) without an income. It's hurting women's careers and their mental health. 

How does longterm unemployment affect women's careers?

Long-term unemployment caused by the COVID-19 crisis has affected women more than its affected men for a number of reasons. 
Women still make up most caretakers in this country, with traditional gender roles leaving women to bear the brunt of family responsibilities. So, when childcare became inaccessible and/or unaffordable during the pandemic, who had to leave their jobs to take care of the kids? Mostly women.
According to census research, unemployed women ages 25 to 44 were about three times as likely as men not to be working thanks to COVID destroying their childcare arrangements. One in three moms added that she may be forced to step down or scale back on work due to the pandemic, according to another study by McKinsey & Co. and By as early as summer 2020, it was the story we saw everywhere. 
In July, a Washington Post article, "Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation," read that 'one out of four women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of child care — twice the rate among men." In August, CNN published the headline: “Working mothers are quitting to take care of their kids, and the US job market may never be the same."

But specifically, what does chronic unemployment mean for womens' careers, beyond rendering them non-existent for a period of time? One study suggested that parents with employment gaps (typically women) are perceived as unemployable. 

"These findings are consistent with employers’ tendency to view stay-at-home parents as not dedicated to work, perceiving them as violating professional expectations that employees should prioritize work over other areas of life — what sociologists call 'ideal worker norms,'" Kate Weisshaar, the study's author, writes for The Conversation.

Employment gaps, in general, cause career trouble.  Another one of Weisshaar's studies found that people who have taken time off of work for any reason tend to earn less later down the line.

"While many people are employed steadily throughout their careers, we found that a substantial group of people — about 32 percent — have low work attachment at the beginning, middle or end of their careers or frequent gaps and reductions in employment at multiple points in their careers," she writes. "Next, we looked at whether and how these long-term career trajectories influence wages later in life, at ages 45 to 50. We found that compared with those who work continuously, employment paths with the most gaps experience up to 40 percent lower wages later in life."

In fact, for women, long-term unemployment can take a serious financial toll.

"The losses in childcare and school supervision hours as a result of the pandemic could lead to a significant decline in women’s total wages," according to the Center for American Progress. "This report estimates that if conditions for families do not improve — and if the levels of maternal labor force participation and work hours experienced during the April 2020 first-wave peak of infections and COVID-19 lockdowns persist long term — lost wages would amount to $64.5 billion per year. This is a crushing loss to families and communities that are still reeling from the pandemic-induced economic collapse. Furthermore, without a significant public response, these consequences will have additional ripple effects that will continue to hurt communities and stifle the economic recovery."

Flash forward a year now, and little has improved. Job seeking, simply put, is harder for unemployed women. It's even harder for them than it is for people looking to make total career changes.

In a 2017 study by the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics, researchers found that unemployed workers spent 8.4 hours every week searching and applying for 8.1 jobs per month. Meanwhile, employed people spent just 1.2 hours per week searching and applying for 1.2 jobs per month. And they tend to have a lot more luck. Other research also suggests that people who are out of work for more than six months are unlikely to be working again a year later. They're even less likely to have landed a stable job within a year's time.
Perhaps part of the reason it's harder to land a job after a long pause is because people lose confidence in their ability to get after a while. According to a 2014 Gallup survey, depression rates are higher for longterm unemployed workers. They tend to be a lot more pessimistic about the job hunt than others, as well.  
“That is a vicious cycle,” Timothy Classen, a health economics professor at Loyola University Chicago, told Bloomberg. “You take an income hit, you face a job stability hit, and likely have a worse health insurance.”

How does long-term unemployment affect women's mental health?

It's no surprise that not being able to find a job in the middle of a recession — for months on end, no less — takes a toll on workers' mental health. The aforementioned Gallup study, amid an entire burgeoning body of research, suggests that longterm unemployment and depression go hand in hand. Specifically, the survey found that unemployed Americans are twice as likely as Americans with full-time jobs to say that they are being treated for depression. The depression rate for longterm unemployed Americans is 18 percent.
The exact reason why unemployment can cause depression is unknown, however. It could be due to a variety of reasons on a case-by-case basis.
"Psychologists have long associated unemployment with a variety of psychological ailments, including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem," according to the researchers. "The causal direction of the relationship, though, is not clear from Gallup's data. It is possible that unemployment causes poor health conditions such as depression, or it could be that having such conditions makes it harder to land a job."
Never mind that long-term unemployed workers tend to lose hope after a while. And having lost hope can be depressing in and of itself. This can significantly affect someone's quality of life and their motivation to reach for their goals. In fact, people who are unemployed tend to spend less quality time with their families and doing the things they love. While you may assume they have more time on their hands to engage with their loved ones, sinking mental wellness gets in the way. 
Generally speaking, Americans seem pretty happy. In the Gallup study, 82.5 percent of people interviewed said that they had smiled or laughed a lot during the previous day. Even 81.1 percent of people who were unemployed for six months or less found something to smile or laugh about the day prior. But, among long-term unemployed workers, that percentage plummets to 70.7.
"The idea that people are less likely to experience positive emotions the longer they are unemployed may come as no surprise — but that drop may be exacerbated by a growing hesitation to seek social support," the researchers write.
In 2011, a study on long-term unemployed workers, which was published by Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, found that this population of people had a tendency to isolate themselves from their friends and families. They felt embarrassed, and so 31.1 percent reported spending just two hours or less with their loved ones — compared to 21.5 percent of short-term unemployed workers. You can bet that many of them did not seek help for their depression either, since they experienced so much shame.

How can you get help if you are unemployed?

If you have been unemployed for quite some time, rest assured that you are not alone. And it may not be a reflection of you as a professional. Millions of Americans are unemployed right there along with you — after all, we are still in the middle of a pandemic-induced recession. And it's just not easy nowadays.
There are, however, resources out there to help you. With that said, here are some places that you can seek assistance if you are unemployed and looking to get back on the employment track as soon as possible:
  • State and Local Resources: First things first, check out your state government site or any local county sites to see if they provide any information on job searches, career help, training programs, or other helpful resources. You never know who might be able to help you who is just a stone's throw away.
  • CareerOneStop Economic Recovery Portal: This portal is a great one-stop shop to find all the tools you need to get back on your feet. There are tons of resources on unemployment, from job postings to food and housing help to  healthcare information. You can even browse recent news about the unemployment crisis.
  • American Job Centers (AJCs): The American Job Centers (AJCs) offer totally free assistance to job seekers who have a whole host of career and employment-related needs. And the good news is that there are nearly 2,400 AJCs in the country, which are all funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. So there's bound to be one near you. All you have to do is head to the site and search your location.
  • Your College's Career Services: If you are a college student or a college graduate, chances are that your current or former institution has a career center. And, if it does, they literally exist to help you in the job hunt. It does not matter how many years you have been out of school. It does not hurt to reach out to them. They may be able to help you network and connect with other alumni in your field, as well as provide resume and cover letter assistance.
  • Apprenticeship, Certification, and Training Programs: Do a quick search on a skill you want to develop or practice more. You may be able to find an apprenticeship, a certification course, or a training program through sites like, Udemy, Khan Academy, and industry-specific organizations like the Code Academy for people in tech. This way, at least you are using your time wisely, honing in on a certain skillset to grow and improve yourself. You will also have a better answer for as to why there was such a big gap on your resume if and when you do land an interview.
At the end of the day, applying for jobs when you are unemployed, unmotivated and uninspired amidst a global pandemic is not easy. You may be entitled to unemployment benefits, and you may be able to qualify for the next tier of benefits, as well. Your eligibility depends on your state, work history, work type and more. Visit your state's government site to learn more about whether or not you qualify.

And, remember, you are not in this by yourself. The whole world is in it with you. Good luck!

AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.