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July 23, 2024 July 23, 2024

Four years after COVID-19, women are still struggling to recover

Posted on May 23, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

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.

The emergency phase of the pandemic is over, but it is fair to say that the recovery has proven to be as unequal as the pandemic itself.

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 in vulnerable sectors was still 125,000 jobs short of pre-pandemic levels. Women accounted for 80 percent of the gap.

The following 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.

Workers in low-wage service jobs aren’t the only group 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 childcare 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 made a dent in vacancy rates, which were more than twice pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

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

In childcare, 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.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended everyone’s lives, but 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.

Katherine Scott is a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

© Troy Media

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