The Liberal Party is considering a major spend to build a national childcare system as an economic measure to help more women return to the workforce. The idea has garnered backing from business groups and was recommended by the House of Commons finance committee in its pre-budget report.
Employment among women remains about 5.3 per cent below where it sat in February 2020, just before the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit in Canada, compared to about 3.7 per cent for men. Most of the shortfall is attributable to losses in sectors like food services and accommodations, where employees deal directly with the public and have been hit hard by lockdowns and restrictions.
But Royal Bank of Canada economists Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone warned in their report that childcare won’t be enough to solve the problem if there aren’t jobs available for mothers to return to. Indeed, some of those jobs may never come back as they’re at risk of being automated, which has added another layer of vulnerability for low-wage women, says Behnoush Amery with the Labour Market Information Council.
Low-income women face a particularly steep climb out of the economic hole opened by the virus. A report by the council said employment for women in low-earning occupations is 14 per cent below pre-coronavirus crisis levels, while their counterparts in high-earning jobs have fully recovered.
Additionally, the shortfall for low-earning men is 12 per cent. “Low-earning women were the most severely impacted in this recession of any other income group or any other gender, and to this day, they are the furthest away from recovery,” says economist Liz Betsis, one of the authors on the report. “As we strive for a sustainable and equitable recovery, we really need to keep in mind low-income women.”
The figures will be among many a newly formed expert panel of women will deal with as it advises minister of finance, Chrystia Freeland, on the measures she’ll need to take in her upcoming budget to pave the road to an economic recovery. While there was some expectation that the budget would appear in March, Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokeswoman for Freeland, said it’s not going to happen because of the pandemic. “The federal government continues to evaluate the economic impact of regional lockdowns, the emergence of new variants of the virus and the increased pace of vaccine distribution,” she said in an email.
Decades of job gains for women could vanish if Ottawa’s plan to recover from the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t rethink federal skills programs and stimulus plans, experts say. For single mothers, the economic lockdowns wiped out two decades of workforce gains, says Katherine Scott, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. At the end of last year, single-parent mothers with children under six worked almost two-fifths fewer hours than they had pre-pandemic. There’s also been a threefold increase in the number of women considered long-term unemployed, noted an RBC report. That means 200,000 more women have been out of work for at least six months, and the longer they’re unemployed, the less likely they’ll ever go back to work.
Elizabeth Dhuey, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says training programs should be updated so low-wage women from retail or food services can apply their skills to emerging, or growing, sectors with a bit of extra training, and “not just throwing money randomly to all these normal players that are doing the same thing as before. Try to figure out who is actually looking at the data, using the data and providing programming,” says Dhuey, who’s also chair of the Canadian Economic Association’s women economists committee.