While B.C.’s unemployment rate has continued to shrink as pandemic restrictions loosen, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released this month shows that not all is as good as it seems.
“The top line good news story hides the deep inequalities in the impact of the pandemic, particularly by gender and by race,” said Iglika Ivanova, the centre’s senior economist and public interest researcher.
Between February and April 2020, about 25 per cent of workers lost their jobs or the majority of their hours, largely concentrated among people in industries where people could not work from home. According to Ivanova’s report, those workers were most likely to work in lower-paid workers in part-time, temporary and more precarious jobs.
Many of these workers were women and many were racialized or Indigenous. The report provides three reason as to why women were particularly hard-hit; they were more likely to work in sectors such as hospitality, food services arts and culture which were targeted in restrictions, they were more likely than men to need to take care of children when schools and daycares closed and they were overrepresented in part-time and temporary job which were the first to be cut when the pandemic hit.
And when these women were also Indigenous, racialized, disabled or otherwise marginalized, the report noted, the intersection of inequalities made it even more likely that they would lose their jobs. While overall, while one-quarter of all workers lost their jobs, nearly one-third of women did.
These workers who lost their jobs, Ivanova said, have been hurt at each side of the pandemic – more likely to lose it at the start and less likely to regain it throughout. Ivanova said that while the decisions made to protect public health – closing down restaurants, large-scale events and other gatherings – may have been logical, they’ve had the unintended side effect of pushing these workers out of the workforce for as long as 16 months.
“So we see some sectors and some industries like accommodation and food services, and like personal services, and, you know, the recreation and culture services, you know, impacted, you know, in a much bigger way than other than other sectors of the economy,” Ivanova said.
“Those service sectors that that bore the brunt of the pandemic are the lowest paying sectors, and they tend to employ a lot more women and a lot more racialized and Indigenous workers than the sectors that did well.”
While the virus did not target any specific groups, Ivanova said it laid bare “the fact that even in the 21st century, our labor market remains quite occupationally segregated.”
The workers “are already disadvantaged on the number of other fronts, because they are the low wage, the young workers, the immigrant workers, the racialized workers.”
As B.C. looks towards economic revival, and as provincial and federal supports fade, Ivanova said that efforts need to focus on bringing the groups most hurt by the pandemic up to par with where they were prior to the pandemic – or even higher.
Ivanova said that as restrictions continue to lift – B.C. is now in Step 3, allowing all but the biggest of events and international travel – more people will regain their jobs. But not everyone will, and government programs need to keep that in mind.
“This is what really worries me now as we go into the summer and we’re going to start seeing better (unemployment) numbers come out of Canada… that that will make people conclude that the job is done, and we don’t need to do anything else, while in reality, these top line good news stories are really hiding enormous inequalities, and the people who bore the brunt of the pandemic are going to be left behind,” whether it is because they were unable to return to the same hours as they had pre-pandemic or people no longer actively looking for a job. The last group, Ivanova said, doesn’t factor into traditional unemployment numbers – only people actively job searching are counted – but could include people who worked in industries that cannot operate due to COVID restrictions. Those people, she said, may not be looking for jobs – because they don’t exist – but they will need government aid or retraining programs for career fields that are in-demand now.
The report outlined three policy initiatives to help workers still struggling.
The first involves large-scale, people-centric investments into both physical and social infrastructure.
”The care economy, which is currently gendered, racialized and undervalued should be rightfully recognized as the foundation upon which the larger economy is built,” the reported stated, noting that investments in this field involve not just building more child care and long-term care facilities or housing but also increasing the budget for the wages that pay the people who provide these services.
Second on the CCPA’s list is to “make all jobs good jobs.
“As we think about creating more jobs, we need to focus not just on the quantity, but on the quality of jobs we’re creating,” Ivanova said, “that those jobs are good jobs, that they pay a living wage, that they offer enough hours, so people don’t have to have three or four of them to make a decent living.”
Some of that, she acknowledged, was done during the pandemic when B.C. created a single-site order for care homes, ensuring that employees were based at just one facility.
“We absolutely can afford a lot more. Canada is a very rich country and B.C. is a very rich province,” Ivanova said. “It was just a choice that we may note the baby for more, and I hope is one of the things we learned from
The third initiative the CCPA proposes is to overhaul the income and social support systems to make them both easier to navigate and sufficient to support the people who rely on them.
The federal government is currently reviewing the Employment Insurance system and Ivanova hopes that one of the things to come out of that is a minimum level of support, instead of calculating benefits a percentage of prior income.
“If you were a minimum wage worker earning part time, and you were barely scraping by now you’re gonna get 55% of that? That’s nothing,” she said.
“I hope we see the Canada Emergency Response Benefit rates of $2,000 a month as a kind of floor.”