Sonia Doyle picked out a tiny desk at Goodwill, positioned it next to hers at the office, and brought her 4-year-old son to work.
Stephanie Searcy bumped up her house's Wi-Fi speed and logged into her job alongside her homebound teenagers.
Ni'Aisha Banks-Devore, who was laid off from her administrative job at a warehouse, cobbled together hours from virtual part-time gigs as she corralled her four children, who were all under age 6.
"I'm on the phone with customers and clients and you've got the kids in the background screaming," the Savannah resident recounted. "It was hard. It's like what time would I be able to work?"
The pandemic upended working life for countless Americans. But more so for women than men. And two years in, many are still struggling to catch up to where they were.
Millions of women -- particularly mothers with school-age children -- pared back their hours, took paid or unpaid leave, left or lost their jobs. Female participation in the labor force reached a 35-year low in April of 2020.
The economy has rebounded since then, and so have jobs, but not equally. Last month, the number of men employed in the U.S. was nearly 350,000 more than before the pandemic. By contrast, there were still nearly 1.5 million fewer women with jobs, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
The racial divide is even starker.
Black women were the most likely of all demographic groups to be unemployed in Georgia during the last quarter of 2021, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonprofit. During that period, the unemployment rate of Black women was 6.5%, more than double the rate of white women.
Some worry that new coronavirus variants like BA.2 could cause aftershocks, especially if schools and day-care centers are once again closed, hitting working mothers the hardest.
"We've heard so many stories about women who are still struggling to get back to what they were making before, and then you tack on the fact that the cost of everything is rising," said Mica Whitfield, state director of 9to5 Georgia, a women's workplace advocacy group.
Child care, job types fuel gender gap
Economists blame the gender gap on two major factors.
The first is that women, especially women of color, were more likely to work in fields like tourism, retail and leisure that were decimated early in the pandemic. Workers in such industries often can't work remotely, don't have paid leave and are at higher risk of COVID-19 exposure.
The second is that women still perform a higher share of household chores and child rearing, despite the rise of two-income households in recent decades. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that mothers across 25 member countries were nearly three times more likely than fathers to say they had taken on the majority or all of the additional unpaid work created by school or day-care closures.
Then there are single-mother households: More than 1 in 5 U.S. children lived with only their moms in 2019, according to the Census Bureau.
"It just kind of all circles around the child care aspect," said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab, which analyzes the global labor market.
Public assistance that was temporarily expanded early in the pandemic, including food stamps, child tax credits and an eviction moratorium, helped many women weather the storm.
Those extra benefits proved to be a godsend to Dominique Cantrell, a single mother of four from Summerhill, as COVID-19 upended her life.
The 36-year-old had made a living as a driver for food-delivery apps like DoorDash and Postmates. But demand plunged as restaurants closed. And then there were Cantrell's children, ages 6 to 11 at the time, who were home from school and in need of supervision.
Armed with laptops and headphones, Cantrell tried to take her kids on deliveries with her, but when that grew too unwieldy, she cut back on hours. She'd often care for her nieces and nephews while her sisters were at work, and pick up hours when her sisters could watch her children in the evenings.
It wasn't enough. She says she fell behind on bills, eventually losing her car and her apartment. The family lived in a shelter for several months before moving in with Cantrell's grandmother.
Cantrell has been working weekends with an event planner and is hoping she can save enough money for a car to get back to delivery work.
The pandemic, she said, "put me behind mentally, financially... I've tried to keep a positive outlook on this, constantly saying my prayers, whatever I needed to do to get past it."
Remote work has been a boon for some women -- so far
COVID-19 hasn't been bad for all Georgia women, especially those whose jobs have more flexibility.
Teleworking has been a game changer for Stephanie Searcy, market director for the global HR consulting firm Robert Half. For the last 18 years, the mother of two had commuted 90 minutes each way from her home in Griffin to company offices across metro Atlanta.
"I've gotten back three hours of my day every day," Searcy said. "I didn't even know what I was missing."
She's used the time she's no longer commuting to attend more of her kids' sporting events, rekindle old friendships and even pick up tennis for the first time.
"For me, it has really been an amazing increase in my family time," Searcy said.
Many employers are beginning to adjust their listings to accommodate jobseekers who increasingly want to work remotely, especially mothers. At the jobs site Indeed, U.S. job postings with remote work terms soared from 2.6% in January 2019 to 9.8% last month.
But some worry it could create a two-class system, one in which men who get more face time with company leaders in the office might get more frequent raises, promotions and opportunities than women who opt to work from home.
"We really don't want to return to the era of the old boys club," said Indeed's Konkel.
Others believe employers might pay lower wages to mothers who return to the workforce after taking a COVID-related absence, exacerbating pay gaps. Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women still only earned 82 cents for every dollar that a man earned in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Gaps persist even among men and women in the same occupation and with similar academic credentials, research shows.
How to narrow the gap?
Advocates argue the playing field could be more level by raising the minimum wage, since women are more likely to hold those jobs, and encouraging more flexible work policies for both women and men.
They advise pushing benefits like parental leave to fathers, which research shows has implications for their long-term caregiving behavior, and requiring paid family leave so workers can care for sick family members or children whose schools temporarily close.
"If paid leave policies were in effect when COVID came, a lot of these women could have taken the needed time off and come back and still had that income rather than switching industries or experience applying for public assistance," said Whitfield, of 9to5 Georgia.
Recent data from northern and western Europe back that up. Women there left the workforce at a lower rate than men during the pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal, due in part to policies that paid workers to furlough, which helped mothers keep their jobs while home-schooling kids.
The U.S. does not have federal paid sick leave, though Congress in 2020 temporarily greenlit two weeks for workers sick with COVID or caring for someone with the virus.
Georgia took a baby step when Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill last year creating three weeks of paid leave for state workers, including teachers, when they welcome a new child into their family. But there are no mandates for private companies.
Perhaps the biggest help, advocates say, could be investing more in child care. Staffing at many day-care centers took a hit early in the pandemic as centers closed. It has been slow to recover amid low wages.
An OECD study of 36 mostly European countries found the U.S. lagged 33 of them in public spending on child care and pre-primary education. The average cost for center-based child care in metro Atlanta is roughly $180 per child per week, according to a GBPI report last year.
When it comes to child care, Doyle, of Peoplestown, considers herself among the lucky ones.
Her job as a program assistant for the Emmaus House, a nonprofit, required her to work in-person during the early days of COVID-19. But Doyle's bosses allowed her to bring her then-4-year-old son Cash to the office.
Each day, Doyle would pack a bookbag filled with puzzles, coloring books and a tablet with Cash's pre-K homework so he could be occupied while she went about her workday.
"When they allowed me to bring my son up here, that changed my life," the 41-year-old said.
Her son is in school -- at least for now.