Editor’s note: This is part four in a series looking at how the pandemic has impacted women in the economy and workforce. Read part 1 | Read part 2 | Read part 3

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In February 2020, Lydia Swift had no plans of leaving her 12-year career at WE Communications in Portland. She loved everything about it – her coworkers, the storytelling she got to do, and how she still felt challenged by the job after so many years. But then, the pandemic hit and she had to rethink her career path. 

Lydia Swift poses for a photo with her husband and their sons. Photo courtesy Lydia Swift

In March 2020, Swift had a 5-month-old baby and another son in kindergarten. When his school and day care closed, she soon realized there was no way she could juggle child care while still devoting enough time to her job. She decided to quit. 

“My career was extremely important, valuable to me at the time and leaving it was just, it was really, really hard,” she said. 

Swift is one of millions of mothers in the U.S. who left her job during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from March to April 2020, about 3.5 million mothers with school-age children left active work, which means they took paid or unpaid leave, lost their job, or left the labor force completely. 

The Census Bureau reports that for the most part, the number of mothers with school-age children who are actively working has been increasing from April 2020 to January 2021, but is still about 1.6 million fewer than January 2020.  

Grayson Dempsey, former interim executive director of Dress for Success Oregon, said Swift’s story is similar to those she’s heard from many women throughout the pandemic. Dress for Success, a non-profit that helps women obtain the skills and wardrobe needed to find and obtain jobs, is helping many mothers who lost or left their jobs in the last 15 months get back to work. 

“The challenges are…having to deal with lack of child care, kids at home, and looking for new jobs at a time when for many of them, their families really need to take precedence,” Dempsey explained. 

Randali De Santos with her husband and daughter. Photo courtesy Randali De Santos

Like Swift, Randali De Santos, another Portland mother, also left her job early on in the pandemic. She worked in the travel industry, which was hit hard during the shutdowns. She said she wasn’t laid off from her job, but her employer offered her two options: relocate to Seattle or take a severance package. 

De Santos chose the severance package. She said with her husband still working in Portland and family nearby, moving wasn’t a good option for them. 

“When you switch from working mom to non-working or vice versa, it’s another identity change and that was really difficult,” De Santos said. 

She’d been a working mom since her daughter was born two and a half years ago. 

Josh Lehner, an economist with the state of Oregon, has been studying the pandemic’s impact on parents’ jobs over the past year. His research shows that in the years leading up to the pandemic, Oregon moms were returning to the labor force in greater numbers due to the strong economy. 

Chart shows the labor force participation rate for Oregon mothers, 2000 to 2020. Chart courtesy Oregon Office of Economic Analysis

Lehner fears the pandemic could undo much of these gains. 

“The fear is that anytime you see a large change like we’ve seen in the past year, that some of that damage, some of that change is permanent or structural,” he said. “We’re pretty optimistic that we won’t see a lot of structural changes, but again, any time you see a big drop, it makes you concerned.” 

Career experts offer support and advice 

Jenny Han Mackie started to grow concerned when she began looking for jobs in December 2020 and wasn’t getting any bites. 

The mother of two moved to Portland from Los Angeles in late 2019. Her husband started working right after their move, but Han Mackie planned to work on a few home renovations before finding a job herself. When the pandemic hit, her sons were struggling with distance learning. She put off her job search for months to help them. 

Han Mackie worked at American Honda for 20 years before moving to Portland. When she started looking for jobs, she discovered the application process had changed in many ways. She learned that with many jobs she applied for, her resume wasn’t going straight to a hiring manager. Instead, it was being run through applicant tracking systems, which can filter out resumes based on things like keywords, skills, and years of experience. 

Jenny Han Mackie stands in front of her Portland home with her two sons. Photo taken March 29, 2021. KOIN photo

Han Mackie knew she needed guidance. She hired a career coach and Anna Giles, a resume writer.  

“I decided this was an investment in my career so it was worth hiring a professional,” Han Mackie said. 

Giles, who owns Girl.Copy, a digital copywriting and consulting agency in Portland, has been working with a lot of women who lost their jobs during the pandemic. She said losing a job can feel like a breakup, but it’s also an opportunity for people to reassess their career trajectory and what kind of job they want. 

“I think people do want to go back to work, but I think they want to go back to work on their terms and that to me is powerful because the people have the power and in my opinion, it shouldn’t be companies dictating how we work,” she said. 

She said the pandemic has opened people’s eyes to what working from home can be like and many people who are searching for jobs are now looking for ones they can do from home. 

Dempsey, from Dress For Success, has also seen more women looking for remote work. She said job flexibility and access to child care are two of the biggest factors that will determine if women will return to work as the pandemic eases. 

“Women are the ones who often will decide not to take the more challenging or higher-paying job because they need to have the flexibility to be with their families,” she said. 

Giles and Dempsey both want to see more women return to the workforce and both shared advice. 

Giles said she’s telling clients to expand their search beyond their geographical location since remote jobs are so popular right now. For moms who haven’t been working during the pandemic, she suggests putting “stay-at-home” mom or “caretaker” on a resume. She also said to mention any volunteer or freelance work completed during the pandemic. She also said it’s OK to show that there’s a gap on your resume in 2020; most employers will be understanding.

Dempsey recommends researching remote interviewing best practices and testing virtual platforms before an interview. She also recommends people network virtually by reaching out to former colleagues, friends, and family, anyone who might be willing to help connect with employers. She said people should update their LinkedIn profiles and audit their online presence to make sure potential employers will find professional information in a search. 

She also said people need to be open to the idea of pivoting their careers.

“If you’re 50 years old and you’ve worked in the restaurant industry your whole life… to not only lose your job, which is always going to be devastating, but to not know when that industry is even going to be hiring again, is a really scary prospect,” she said. 

The leisure and hospitality industry was the hardest-hit jobs sector in Oregon. The industry had more than half of its jobs held by women. As those jobs start to return, Dempsey expects more women will return to work. 

Dempsey said she’s recently seen women have luck finding jobs in healthcare, in tech, in trades, for delivery companies, for real estate companies, and working for the government. 

Finding a job during the pandemic is possible  

For Han Mackie, Giles’ assistance and advice paid off. In June she started a new job. She said it’s in a completely different industry than Honda, but aligns perfectly with the direction she wanted her career to go. 

“Taking a focused and intentional approach to guiding my career has been a scary and challenging process, but I am thrilled with the result,” she told KOIN 6 News in an email. 

De Santos and Swift also found new careers. 

De Santos said she found a job working in health IT. The job is remote, which she’s excited about, and her manager is allowing her flexible hours until she finds stable child care. 

Lydia Swift and Sharon Pope, who co-founded Shelpful during the pandemic, pose for a photo with their children. Photo courtesy Lydia Swift

Swift launched her own business, Shelpful, with a friend in March 2021. She said work-wise, this is the happiest she’s ever been. 

As capacity expands at child care centers and schools reopen in the fall, Lehner expects even more women will return to the workforce. He said reopening schools will provide a double job boost, not just by creating more jobs in the education sector, but also the indirect effect of allowing more parents to go back to work rather than spend their time caring for their children.  

He said the good thing about this recession is it’s not expected to last long. The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis forecasted it would last about three years from start to end. It’s been more than 15 months since the pandemic began, and Lehner expects to see a full recovery within two years. 

Dempsey agrees it’s possible, but said it’s going to require a lot of people working together, and a unified effort to support child care in the U.S. 

“There are a lot of challenges and it’s going to really take all of us I think private industry, non-profits, government, advocacy, politics… to make sure women don’t lose ground as a result of this economic recession,” she said. 

Swift said spending months without a job gave her time to slow down and imagine a career that would work best for her. She hopes other women will take the time to do the same, and then get back out there. 

“We’re extremely skilled and valuable and it shouldn’t be a part of the population that is looked over at all,” she said. “So, get out there, start something, do your own thing, create your own path.”