Ellen Kaldor was working as a registered nurse at a La Crosse, Wisconsin, hospital when the pandemic hit.
She worked days and her husband, a police officer, worked nights. But as the pandemic worsened, their three kids' school went online and she couldn't quite heal fully from an earlier surgery. She chose to leave her career when the family moved to Duluth in July and focus on helping her kids get through at-home learning.
"When the kids were sent home from school starting in March, we just realized that we couldn't juggle that with both of us working. … I ended up deciding with everything combined that I would just stay home with the kids," Kaldor said.
Kaldor is not alone. The pandemic has prompted thousands of Minnesotans to quit their jobs and prioritize child care, elder care or early retirement.
From February to November, more than 8,000 people in the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Area (St. Louis, Carlton and Douglas counties) left the labor force — meaning they aren't working or seeking work — said Carson Gorecki, northeast regional analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
It's a 5.7% drop in the region's labor force, which sat at 144,290 in February before bottoming out at 135,853 in October and rising slightly to 136,029 in November.
Elena Foshay, director of the workforce development at the city of Duluth, said she's seen a number of people who have either chosen or been forced to leave the labor force "because schools are closed and they have school-aged children and they do the work that can't be done from home, or they just can't manage working from home and virtual school.
"We've definitely seen people that have had to put a pause on working, and it's most often the mom of the family," Foshay said. "Not always, but often."
That's true for Kaldor, and she's seen it among many other moms, too.
For some couples, the woman might earn less income than the man, Kaldor said.
"It is also a societal expectation that women will be the child care providers in most families," Kaldor said. "Women quit work or stay home temporarily to have babies and care for infants and often that transitions to women staying home to care for children."
Gorecki said women were especially leaving the workforce more than men early in the pandemic, though it has evened out since then.
He noted that while women are likely leaving to take care of children or other family members, he added that some may have left because industries where there are more women were hit harder by layoffs.
Gorecki said in two of the job sectors most affected by last spring's pandemic-induced layoffs, health care and social assistance and accommodation and food service, women make up 78% and 57% of workers, respectively.
"(The reasons) could be kind of feeding each other," Gorecki said.
Another reason driving people to leave the labor force: early retirements.
"There are some older workers that are deciding now's the time to retire. Maybe they've waited a certain amount of time, and now it's becoming clear that 'I lost this job, and my prospects of looking for another one are not the greatest, so maybe it's time to call it a career,'" Gorecki said.
Foshay added older adults are at a greater risk for a serious COVID-19 infection and some may not be able to work from home.
"They've sort of been almost forced out of the workforce because they're concerned about their own health and safety," Foshay said.
There are signs the labor force exodus is easing.
From October to November, about 600 people reentered the workforce.
"We have started to — just in the last month — add back employment more than people leaving the labor force," Gorecki said.
As for Kalder, she's trying to stay as available as she can for her kids, but may start job searching again in the next two to three months.
She said she misses her job as a nurse, which she considered meaningful work, and a three-child household with only one working parent isn't sustainable.
"We can't financially afford for it long term," Kaldor said.
Kaldor said it would be easier to return to her career once school is back in person and can stay in person because of a vaccine.
"It's kind of a touch-and-go thing," Kaldor said of returning to work. "Because we don't know what's going to happen with school."