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Unequal pandemic, unequal recovery

Four years into COVID-19’s disruption, many women are still struggling

July 2, 2024

9-minute read

The COVID-19 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020 not only threatened people’s health but exposed and exacerbated entrenched inequalities. Women bore the brunt.

Millions were working in public-facing jobs that were most affected by necessary public health closures. Millions more laboured on the frontlines at great personal risk, sustaining our communities while juggling an enormous increase in unpaid labour and care at home.

Significant gaps in our market-oriented care infrastructure and the failure of governments to take effective action further amplified the pandemic’s impacts—and resulting stresses—on women and marginalized communities, including increased violence, greater isolation and ill health, heightened economic insecurity, and loss of access to vital community supports.

Forty per cent of women polled by Oxfam Canada in 2020 reported feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, while 35 per cent said that they felt isolated and lonely. These impacts were most acute for essential workers and racialized women.

Three years later, the emergency phase of the pandemic is over but critical questions remain about the pandemic’s long-term impact. The concern, from the start, was the potential for the crisis to set off a devastating feedback loop that would deepen existing inequalities. The CCPA’s Beyond Recovery project was established two-and-a-half years ago to track the economic fallout for women workers, especially those in hard-hit industrial sectors and the care economy.

At this juncture, it is fair to say that the recovery has proven to be as unequal as the pandemic itself. The rise in gender inequality associated with the pandemic was wholly predictable, given the inequities built into Canada’s labour market and welfare state and the failure of governments to pursue a comprehensive response to the pandemic. As it was, there were significant policy gaps that neither provincial nor federal programming adequately addressed—problems that took hold as the recovery progressed.

Winners and losers in the pandemic’s aftermath

Canada’s economy rebounded in 2021 and continued to grow through 2022 and 2023—but strong employment growth wasn’t enough to boost the economic fortunes of all women. While some groups of workers experienced little economic disruption, low-wage workers in pandemic-vulnerable sectors and precarious employment situations were trapped on an economic roller coaster.

By the end of 2022, total employment (both men and women) in vulnerable sectors was still 125,000 jobs short of pre-pandemic levels. Women accounted for 80 per cent of the gap. The next year, 2023, was better for this group of workers, but women’s employment continued to lag in accommodation and food services, personal services (such as hair salons and laundry services), and in arts, entertainment, and recreation. Young people and new immigrants experienced the biggest losses.

Low wages remain a huge problem in frontline service work. Employers have yet—in any widespread way—to change up their business models and offer higher wages to attract staff back.

Modest wage gains between 2019 and 2023 have been more than offset by the rising cost of living. Restaurant workers and grocery clerks are making less today than before the pandemic.

As our case study of hotel workers in B.C. documents, the hotel industry has used the crisis to cut costs by increasing flexibilization of labour and understaffing, further increasing the precarity of workers.

Established disparities between low-paid, precarious workers and the growing number of workers in permanent, well-paid jobs appear to be widening.

Workers in low-wage service jobs aren’t the only group that has been hammered by the pandemic.

Over three million women working in the care economy are still under enormous pressure. Canada’s health and community services, strained and drained by years of austerity, have been running full out for four years trying to keep up with demand. Vacancies have soared as burned-out staff have retired and/or sought less stressful employment and some modicum of control over their lives.

This interminable situation has been made worse by negligible wage growth. The gap between wages and monthly inflation figures has been particularly pronounced in several women-majority care occupations, further entrenching established gender pay disparities. School teachers, hospital workers and child care educators, for instance, all experienced more than a four per cent wage cut, in real terms, between 2019 and 2023.

The care economy workforce has expanded since 2019. Between 2019 and 2023, hospitals and educational services reported the second and third largest increases in women’s employment—a total of 202,000 jobs. Yet these increases have barely put a dent in vacancy rates, which were more than twice pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

Over 50 per cent of long-term care and home care staff surveyed in our Manitoba study indicated that they are either very or somewhat likely to leave the profession in the next five years.

In the child care field, new students are graduating from early childhood education programs only to leave the field a few years later because of low wages and poor working conditions. Recruitment and retention problems have become exponentially worse in the last few years, despite the infusion of new federal funding. These monies have made a huge difference in making child care more affordable, but demand for new spaces has predictably exploded and there aren’t enough staff.

The other side of the story

The pandemic clearly exacerbated existing disparities, impacting millions of women working in essential public and private services. But this isn’t the whole story. In the aftermath of the pandemic, as economic bottlenecks resolved and pent-up consumer demand surged, other groups of workers found employment in several high-paying sectors.

For example, the share of women working in professional services—such as computer systems design, legal services and accounting—increased by 1.9 percentage points between 2019 and 2023. The relative increase of women working in public administration was even larger, 2.3 percentage points, pushing women’s share of employment in this industry above the 50 per cent mark.

In total, four industries—professional services, information and culture, finance and insurance, and public administration—experienced an increase of 292,800 jobs (or 16.5 per cent), outpacing growth in care economy jobs (167,800 or 5.7 per cent), but not yet knocking health and education out of their position as the largest employers (along with retail) of women.

The pandemic appears to be accelerating the shift away from high-contact, typically low-paid, personal and customer service work to better paying jobs in white collar service industries at a time of profound demographic change. Large numbers of older, Canadian-born workers are leaving the labour market and large numbers of new immigrants and temporary workers are entering it.

This has opened new employment opportunities for women—including for Indigenous women, new immigrants and women with disabilities.

As a result, a sizable group of female workers has moved up the wage grid from lower-paying jobs to higher-paying jobs since 2020—important progress.

But many of these women have been channelled into lower-paying jobs within these fields. The gender pay gap in professional services—such as law, accounting, finance, and computer systems design—has widened as male earnings growth outpaced that of women.

In professional services, for instance, women earn 75 cents, on average, for every dollar men earn—a decline of three percentage points since 2019. This is the definition of two steps forward, one step back.

Up and down the earnings ladder, women earn less than men, reflecting entrenched systemic bias, the unequal burden of care and outright discrimination.

The pandemic has illuminated the gender, racial and ableist disparities that shape and delimit women’s economic opportunities and security but has done comparatively little to disrupt or dislodge them.

Canada’s gender pandemic response: Did it measure up?

At the beginning of the pandemic, all countries took steps to respond to the health crisis and mitigate the ensuing economic and societal shocks. But very few put in place a “holistic gender response” to the unfolding crisis and the erosion of women’s rights and well-being. Fewer still considered the unique position or experiences of marginalized women or gender-diverse people in their recovery programs.

In Canada, the federal government clearly acknowledged the gendered character of the COVID-19 crisis in its policy statements. It also marshalled a sizable pandemic response, in comparison to its peers, providing nearly 19 per cent of GDP in total support to keep Canadians and businesses afloat, directing an above-average share of funding to households to assist with the economic fall-out.

A total of $300 million, for example, was directed to organizations supporting women, girls and gender-diverse people experiencing rising gender-based violence.

Emergency transfers had a substantial impact on household incomes, more than offsetting what would have been a precipitous rise in poverty.

The scale of the federal intervention was also a key factor in Canada’s robust employment recovery in 2021 and 2022. Mindful of the lessons of the 2008-09 recession and the damaging, long-lasting impacts of austerity, governments around the world adopted a more proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government spending helped sustain economic demand across provinces, creating the conditions for a speedy economic recovery for several economic sectors.

At the same time, the response to the crisis in care, and its disproportionate impact on women, fell dramatically short. The federal measures were not enough to deliver on the promise of gender justice—certainly not in a country where a fulsome response to the pandemic hinged on subnational levels of government, many of which were wholly silent on the pandemic’s gendered impacts.

Most provinces sat back and let the federal government do the heavy lifting on their pandemic responses, pocketing pandemic funds while turning a blind eye to care services buckling under the stress.

Historic new investments in child care and proposed long-term care standards hold out the promise of strengthening Canada’s care infrastructure. Canada is finally creating a country-wide system of early learning and child care that is affordable, inclusive and accessible. Canada is also working toward improving the quality of care available to vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities.

However, these efforts are now at risk, mired in jurisdictional conflict, stymied for lack of staff, and under attack from for-profit providers and private equity interests seeking larger stakes in service delivery.

A gender just recovery for all

The COVID-19 pandemic upended everyone’s lives, but evidence from our study shows that not everyone experienced the pandemic or its economic aftermath in the same way.

The economic hammer fell most harshly on frontline service workers in the public and private sectors—two distinct groups that have continued to struggle under difficult working conditions, the value of their wages no match for the soaring cost of living.

Meanwhile, another group of workers—taking advantage of the historic moment—were able to pivot into higher-paying jobs in professional services, technology, finance and public administration.

Unequal pandemic, unequal recovery.

This is a profoundly troubling finding. The pandemic shone a spotlight on the ways in which Canada’s economy and care work are intertwined. It blew open our social safety net, revealing the precarity and deadly consequences of our reliance on market-based service in fields like long-term care and the negligent and exploitative treatment of essential workers.

This was an event that revealed the fundamental inequities baked into our economy and institutions.

Yet the scope and scale of the response at the time, and since, has been wholly inadequate to the task of building back better. There was a moment when health care workers were held up as heroes. For the most part, however, Canada’s largely female and racialized frontline service workforce laboured in the shadows, with limited supports through the worst of the emergency and its aftermath.

This disconnect reflects the deeply gendered treatment and positioning of women’s work, intersecting with racist and ableist stereotypes and immigration policies designed to service Canada’s care deficit and the demands of low-wage employers. The pandemic response did not challenge or disrupt the power relations at the heart of women’s economic subordination.

As our study reveals, the pandemic has amplified the divide between low-wage, precarious employment and permanent, white-collar work that is resilient to pandemics and automation.

Moving forward, fundamental reforms are needed to create a more secure foundation for all workers, with a focus on precarious workers and marginalized communities.

The experience has reinforced the necessity of updating and expanding fundamental income supports, such Employment Insurance and caregiving leaves, and strengthening employment standards and other workplace measures, such as employment equity and proactive pay equity, so as to value the skill, effort and responsibility of workers, create decent working conditions and equitable access to good jobs, and provide robust protections for all workers’ rights across Canada—in all employment situations.

Addressing the low wages and poor working conditions of essential workers is also critical to any plausible or just strategy for reducing the penalty attached to occupational segregation for women and other marginalized groups.

To this end, increased investment in the care economy is vital for the millions of women who work there and for the communities that rely on their services. Immediate action is also needed to expand access to services and protections for migrant care workers and other temporary foreign workers (including international students) whose precarious immigration status creates the conditions for ongoing exploitation.

The imperative now is to apply the lessons of COVID-19 in service of a more sustainable, resilient and gender-just future, ensuring that those who bore the brunt of the pandemic are not again left behind. If there is one message to take forward, it is that change on gender equality is possible—but sustained action is needed to get us there.

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