Women and Black Americans are finally rejoining the workforce—just in time for the recession


During the pandemic, women and people of color were more likely to be locked out of the labor force than other demographic groups. Now, these groups are finally returning to work, but at an uncertain time for the economy.

Women are returning to the labor force in a big way, with 397,000 more women looking for a job in May, according to the latest jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, released on Friday. This has pushed women's labor force participation rate to 58.3%, only one percentage point lower than before the pandemic, according to the National Women's Law Center.

Black women led the return to the workforce, as their participation rate is even higher than before the pandemic. Unemployment among Black men and women is slightly higher than last month, so it doesn’t mean that more Black Americans have found jobs yet, but it does mean that more are actively looking for one right now.

Black women looking to rejoin the workforce is evidence that the gender and racial employment gap that emerged during the pandemic—when many women and Black Americans left the workforce entirely—is starting to close. But with a recession seemingly on the horizon, some groups are also venturing back into the economy at a potentially challenging time. 

High unemployment, but in a good way

The latest U.S. jobs report showed that the unemployment rate for Black Americans was at 6.2% in May, a slight uptick from the 5.9% rate in April. Women also saw a slight increase, 3.6% from 3.5%.

In terms of labor participation rate, it's 62.7% for Black women, the highest it has been throughout the pandemic. For Black men, it's 68.9%, the highest it has been since 2010.

The higher participation rate for Black Americans comes after a pandemic that disproportionately affected them, pushing many out of the workforce for much longer than other demographic groups due to difficulties advancing out of low-paying jobs and because of discriminatory hiring practices. Last year, as the U.S. economy slowly began to pick up, the Black unemployment rate remained high, even as the rate for white men and women dropped.

Now, amid a 40-year-high inflation rate that is pushing up gas and food prices, the economy is increasingly hanging in the balance. 

Looking for work during a recession

People seeking jobs now aren’t necessarily having a hard time finding them, with many companies saying that a labor shortage is among their main concerns. But the good times may be almost over, as more and more economists, investors, and banks ring the alarm about a recession approaching.

The Federal Reserve has been raising borrowing rates for months, in an effort to tame inflation and slow down the economy. But if interest rates and borrowing become too expensive, people and companies may simply stop spending and put the economy into a recession.

That would normally be accompanied by an uptick in unemployment. Companies would be much less likely to be able to afford payroll, and much more likely to lay workers off.

A recession is still uncertain, and if it does happen, not everyone thinks it will be a particularly bad one. But people who have been out of work for years and are looking for a job now may be in for an unpleasant surprise if a recession hits.

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