More than a year after the pandemic ravaged the economy, the country now faces how it will heal. The answer, according to several economists, lies in closing the gender disparity that cleaved the country in two. But as the overall job market stumbles its way back, women are still behind in recovering lost employment.

"Between February and April 2020, 4.2 million women dropped out of the labor force, in large part due to an unexpected caregiving burden. Nearly 2 million have not yet returned," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Friday at a White House press briefing on the April employment report. "The challenge before us is to help these 2 million women to return to the labor market ... to help the millions of other workers who left prior to the pandemic to do the same."

"Our policymaking has not accounted for the fact that people’s work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked, and if one suffers so does the other," she said. "The pandemic has made this very clear."

The latest employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that of the 266,000 people who rejoined the workforce in April, 161,000 of those were women.

The pandemic recession stands out from previous economic crises because it hit sectors that are more likely to employ women, said Kathryn Edwards, an economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank.

As states restricted in-person work to the bare essentials, millions of women found themselves out of a job. Women make up the majority of workers in the health sector, which has lost more than 540,000 jobs over the course of the pandemic. Retail, where about half of the workers are women, lost 400,00 jobs. The restaurant industry, where women represent half the workforce, ended in 2020 with 2.5 million fewer jobs than pre-pandemic levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

“One of the things about this crisis is that it is multilayered,” Kate Bahn, director of labor market policy and an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, told NBC News. “Women are overrepresented in the highest risk jobs [and] most marginalized women have used child care that is not addressed by public policy; it just reached a crescendo.”

Women are more likely to take on the responsibilities for caregiving at home whether it is children, in-laws, family members, or parents, said Kweilin Ellingrud, a senior partner focused on gender equality research with the consulting firm McKinsey and Company. They are also more likely to do the shopping and cleaning for the home. McKinsey found about 40 percent of mothers versus 20 percent of fathers added 20 hours or more per week of domestic work last year, with most of those responsibilities including child care and cooking.

Additionally, the jobs more likely to be occupied by women before the pandemic — customer service, retail, sales — are becoming more automated as consumers become more comfortable shopping and banking online, she said. Over the next 10 years, about 17 million workers in the U.S. are going to need to change entire occupations or they are going to have to change jobs within the occupation, according to McKinsey. About 80 percent of those jobs fall into categories dominated by women including administrative support, customer service, sales, and foodservice.

“It’s been a double whammy here on women impacting work at home and dramatically increasing the impact on certain occupations,” Ellingrud said.

President Joe Biden introduced the American Families Plan last week, a proposal to begin public schooling at age 3 — potentially saving families thousands of dollars a year on child care — and to cap a family’s out-of-pocket cost of child care on a sliding scale. It would also mandate a 12-week paid family and medical leave policy to care for children, siblings or a spouse.

“It is important to keep in mind that child care has economic dividends and enables people to work,” Edwards said. “This isn't a policy that is a free gift or handout to mothers; this is an economic investment that our current situation calls for.”

The U.S. could be on track to see roughly $2.4 trillion shaved off its gross domestic production without interventions to drive women’s employment, Ellingrud said. Women also raise wages across the board for all workers, according to research from Amanda Weinstein, an economics professor at the University of Akron.

Even with targeted support, women’s employment will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, a full 18 months after overall jobs recover, according to McKinsey.

“How can an economy fight with one hand tied behind your back?” Ellingrud said. “It’s hard to grow the full economy at the same rate when half the population is women.”

Austin Mathouser was working at a bowling alley in San Jacinto, California, as a server and bartender before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In March 2020, she was laid off after the venue was forced to close to stem the potential spread of the virus.

Mathouser, a 30-year-old single mother of three young children, found another job in customer service with a dropshipping company seven months later. But when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with Covid-19, Mathouser's employer did not offer medical leave and she said she had no choice but to resign in order to care for her. She has been supporting her family on $100 a week ever since.

Her weekly unemployment check barely covers the cost of her phone, gas, and insurance, let alone child care, she said.

“It's a little frustrating and overwhelming," she said. "With three children and how expensive child care is, I would just be putting everything that I make into just having someone watch my kids."

While out of work, Mathouser plays the role of mom and teacher.

“I'm trying to make sure that my fourth-grader and my first grader are doing what they're supposed to be doing and at different times,” she said. “It's very frustrating, but we're doing the best that we can.”

The U.S. economy added just 266,000 jobs in April — a mere fraction of economists’ expectations of nearly a million, and unemployment ticked up instead of dropping as predicted. According to economists, this is a clear sign that there are still giant holes in America’s economic recovery and that the coronavirus remains in the driver’s seat.

With vaccination rates slowing even as local economies fully reopen, the job market is reorienting itself into a new normal that assumes the virus might linger for the foreseeable future — a shift that labor experts say requires investment in a wide swath of workers if their skills are to reflect this new reality.

The severity and duration of the pandemic have led to countless small business closures, leaving workers without a job to return to as the recovery takes hold.

“The questions are, can I go back to my old employer, and can the consumer go back to the old storefront?” said Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

He added that this has had a disproportionate impact on less-educated Americans, who tend to work in labor-intensive, low-wage service sectors.

“The idea of the rising tide lifting all boats — it’s not doing that equally,” Strohl said. “When we look at the impact of pandemic unemployment, it hit high-school-and-less the hardest. The recovery has lifted the college-educated the most strongly. We have segregation.”

In taking analysts by surprise, the labor market’s stumble served as a stark reminder of the gap that persists between the bounce-back in economic activity and the recovery of the labor market. Last week, the Commerce Department reported that gross domestic product grew at an annualized rate of 6.4 percent in the first quarter of 2021. Many economists predict that a return to the Q4 2019 level of economic output could come as early as this quarter.

Those gains are unlikely to be shared by the labor market anytime soon: An analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that employment won’t recover fully until 2024 when it predicts a jobless rate of 4.2 percent.

“The recovery and expansion phase of GDP began [but] we're still a long way from expansion in the labor market,” said Joseph LaVorgna, managing director and chief economist of the Americas at Natixis. “How quickly we have the jobs recovery will be a function of reopenings, how the virus evolves and vaccinations.”

Many economists’ calculations around current and future job gains don't account for the growth that would have taken place over the last 12 months if the pandemic hadn’t triggered a nationwide shutdown. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, said nearly 3 million more jobs would have been added if the current pre-pandemic pace of job creation had continued uninterrupted. Starting from a February 2020 baseline of roughly 152.5 million jobs, the U.S. would have just over 155.1 million jobs as of last month. The actual total is roughly 144.1 million.

“The K-shaped recovery we have observed so far still threatens to persist as many Americans on Main Street don’t benefit much from the large-scale monetary stimulus initiatives,” and the market gains that have elicited, said Steve Rick, the chief economist at CUNA Mutual Group.

For much of the missing service-sector jobs to return, Americans will have to be willing to eat out, get their hair cut, visit movie theaters and attend sporting events again.

“What happens there will dictate whether we will more quickly absorb or re-employ the people who have been displaced because of the virus,” LaVorgna said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of labor slack that’s out there,” he said.

If vaccine reticence leads to more virulent mutations that can put even the inoculated at risk, these jobs could be lost forever. Experts said the prospect of investing more in the nation’s workforce as laid out in President Joe Biden’s economic recovery plans is the country’s best shot at replacing some of those jobs and having a qualified pool of labor to fill them.

“In order to make the recovery more equitable and sustainable, prioritizing spending on healthcare, education, infrastructure, and childcare will be crucial,” Rick said.

More money for education and training, experts said, could help speed the return of marginalized populations back into the labor market.

“Skilling programs targeted to women and minorities remain essential to helping displaced workers qualify for new and in-demand roles,” said Karen Fichuk, CEO of staffing firm Randstad North America.

“The growth and excitement in this economy are really tilted towards those with a college education,” Strohl said. Getting these discouraged workers off the sidelines, he said, will take a massive retraining initiative to re-engage this pool of workers with the new economic reality. “We think what they really need to do is modernize the training system.”

e pandemic, millions of jobs are still missing

One year into the pandemic, millions of jobs are still missing