Looking at COVID-19 through an LFS lens

December 18, 2020

6-minute read

The COVID-19 crisis has repeatedly demonstrated the profound inequities of our labour market and social safety net. The situation has been particularly acute for low wage, precarious workers, those with the fewest legal protections and the fewest resources to weather this storm. 

With 2020 drawing to a close, we compiled three key trends revealed by Labour Force Survey data as months of closures and restrictions reshaped Canada’s labour landscape. We’ll be keeping an eye on these trends to determine who is being left behind in the economic recovery from the pandemic. 

The stalled out gender gap

The pandemic shutdown impacted women-majority sectors hard and fast. By the end of April, 2.8 million women–30% of those working–had lost their jobs or were working less than half of their regular hours. Low-wage workers, overwhelmingly women, highly racialized, and facing the greatest barriers to employment, suffered the largest share of job losses. 

Nine months into the pandemic, more women are back at work and picking up lost hours. But the recovery is as unequitable as the downturn has been and women’s economic security remains fragile. 

With a surge in jobs in the education sector in early fall, women had recouped 79% of their early economic losses by mid October. But that same month, in large labour markets like the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal region, new public health restrictions introduced in response to rising community infections, precipitated another round of job cuts in women-majority sectors such as Accommodation and food services and Information, culture and recreation. Other regions and layoffs followed in November. 

The steady progress in employment that characterized the summer has now stalled. Indeed, in November the total number of hours worked at all jobs (on a seasonally adjusted basis) actually fell. Female workers are working 10% fewer hours in the aggregate than before the pandemic. 

The number of long-term unemployed (those whose period of unemployment exceeds 27 weeks) has also been trending upwards, more than doubling between August and November among unemployed women, reaching to 25.2% (and one-quarter of unemployed men as well). 

The women formerly known as working mothers

A key piece of the crisis for women’s economic security is happening on the home front. Women have been stepping up to shoulder a huge demand for unpaid labour and caregiving, and stepping back from paid employment. 

Employment gains since April have been especially weak among mothers with children under 13, pointing to a continuing unequal division of labour in the home as schools closed and access to child care became uncertain. By August, fathers had effectively recouped all of their employment losses, while 12% of the mothers who had been working in February were still without work or working less than half of their regular hours. 

The September bump in women’s employment still left large numbers of mothers working reduced hours, with single parent mothers experiencing the greatest economic challenges compared to fathers and mothers in two-parent families. By September, single parent mothers had recovered a much smaller fraction of their spring employment losses, especially those with young children under age 6 who had recouped just 30% of lost hours. 

The situation did not improve over the fall. There was another significant drop in total hours worked among mothers with children under 12 between October and November. The November jobs report from Statistics Canada notes that, on a year-over-year basis, there were 54.9% more mothers with children aged 0 to 12 years working less than half their usual hours than a year ago. 

As stark as these figures are, they don’t even capture the proportion of women who have dropped out of the labour market completely, setting aside their own financial security to care for their families’ needs. As of November, the number of women “not in the labour force” was almost 150,000 higher than in February. 

Women aged 35-39 years, in particular, are exiting the labour force “in droves,” according to recent research from RBC Economics, with mothers of children under 6 years accounting for two-thirds of the exodus in this key age group. The crisis in the child care sector in combination with the challenges attached to schooling and homeschooling are exacting a huge toll. Not everyone is finding their way back.

Low wage workers: Last in line for the recovery

The recovery from the worst of COVID-19 job and hour losses has been very uneven. While the top quarter of earners are now better off than they were in February, the bottom half of workers (making under $17/hr) have hit a plateau. There are still 14% fewer people earning less than $17/hr today than in February, and that seems like the best it's going to get for some time for low wage workers. 

Throughout this recession, what a worker is paid has determined roughly how likely they are to lose their job or their hours. For April and May, almost half of the people in the bottom quartile making at or near minimum wage had lost their job or the majority of their hours. The CERB was an important factor in maintaining household incomes for this group. However, months of job loss and uncertainty are very difficult to endure and recover from.  

In April and May, the richest decile of earners saw less than 10% job or hour loss. The nature and type of jobs held by higher earners allowed for a rapid transition to working from home in the initial lockdown, something that lower wage workers in the service sector simply couldn’t do. This also allowed higher wage employees to rapidly regain ground from any small job losses they might have experienced, and fully recover by July.

Concerningly, the rapid recovery between May and September for low and middle wage workers stalled in October and November, and could even regress in December as additional COVID-19 restrictions are introduced in jurisdictions where infection rates continue to climb, namely the Western provinces. Although December is traditionally a time with substantially more low wage holiday-related work in retail and food industries, much of this potential work will be severely constrained this year by the rise of infection rates and subsequent public health measures.

While a vaccine offers the real possibility of an exit ramp to this nightmarish year, until it is substantially rolled out, COVID-19 restrictions will continue. A spike in rates of illness over the holidays and subsequent public health restrictions bodes very badly for low wage workers for whom work often dries up in the early months of any new year. The second wave of infections could very easily be followed by a second wave of low wage job losses.

Looking ahead

The shape of the recovery is now coming into view. Employment in sectors like Accommodation and food services and Retail, where women dominate, may take years to recover (an example of a devastating “L” shaped recovery), whereas male-dominated Manufacturing, Construction and Professional, scientific and technical services have already sprung back (following the much more desirable “V” shaped path). 

National level employment trends across all industries, one of the government’s stated economic markers, is essential to guide the scale and timing of its future spending on economic stimulus and aid programs. But moving forward, the crucial question for an inclusive and sustainable recovery is: who is being left behind? 

The CCPA will keep our eye on the over one million who have been impacted by pandemic-related job losses or are still working much reduced hours. We will be monitoring the largely female workforce in Canada’s care economy as well as the situation of racialized workers labouring on farms and in crowded manufacturing plants and service centres. We will also track those unable to take up paid employment because of the now heavier constraints related to caregiving, schooling and other personal responsibilities, as well as  lack of access to necessary employment supports. 

We must also be concerned about the quality of work and what is likely to be the growth in temporary or precarious work practices as economic uncertainty continues and high levels of unemployment persist. To this end, economic investment in Canada’s future must strengthen decent work, employment protections and employment equity – ensuring that the most marginalized who have borne the onslaught of the pandemic are first in line to benefit from the recovery. 


Katherine Scott is a Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow her on Twitter @ScottKatherineJ

David Macdonald is a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMacCdn.

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