by Terry Price, president of Public Interest Alberta, and Laura Kruse, Communications Officer at Public Interest Alberta
Monday, March 8, 2021 marked the first International Women’s Day since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11th, 2020.
In the year since the declaration, we’ve seen a staggering and ever-increasing death toll and a financial crisis that have gripped our global world. The resulting economic recession has been called the most asymmetric recession in Canadian history pummelling low wage and precarious workers while the wealthy continue to see their net worth grow. Most alarmingly, billionaires have amassed over $10.2 trillion in wealth since the declaration of the pandemic.
The asymmetric nature of this recession has another dimension. It has impacted women far more significantly than our male counterparts. Over half a million Canadian women have lost their jobs due to COVID and 100,000 of those women have left the workforce entirely. The result? Women’s workforce participation has hit the lowest levels in three decades.
Why has it hit women in such record numbers? Women are overrepresented in public-facing, high-contact industries including retail, hospitality, and food services which have been the sectors hardest hit by the impact of the lock-down measures required to prevent and contain the spread of COVD-19. Additionally, lack of access to child care for women with children under the age of 6 accounts for the vast majority of the permanent exodus of women from the workforce.
Further, economists are predicting that the economic recovery from this recession will be equally asymmetric. Estimates are that, globally, it will take until 2024 for women to recover to pre-pandemic levels–two full years after a recovery for men.
Worse yet, these trends exacerbate the inequities that existed before the pandemic encompassed the globe. This is especially true in Alberta where we have one of the highest wage gaps between men and women. In 2019, 70.7% of workers in Alberta who earned less than $16 per hour–far below the living wage in a lot of the province–were women. Furthermore, even pre-pandemic, women, on average, contributed twice as many hours of unpaid care work within families including cooking, cleaning, shopping, and care for children and elderly relatives – a statistic which has only increased during the isolation, lock-downs, and resulting financial precarity during the past twelve months of the pandemic.
The acute pressure of the pandemic has exposed and expanded the already-existing and deep-rooted inequalities and weaknesses in our societies. Clearly, actions must be taken to support women’s economic recovery from this particular crisis, and to eliminate the inequalities women faced prior to the pandemic.
Our provincial government could have an immediate and meaningful impact in supporting women by ensuring universal access to high quality, affordable child care. In addition to the myriad benefits, such as healthy mental and physical development in children, access to high-quality, universally-accessible, and affordable child care is a proven method of increasing women’s workforce participation and for lowering poverty. It is a particularly impactful intervention for single mothers who are often the most impacted by poverty. Furthermore, investing in child care helps everyone. Studies have repeatedly shown that, across North America, every dollar invested into child care provides a return on investment between $1.60 to $3.25.
However, rather than investing in the child care sector and capitalizing on the innumerable benefits of that investment, the Alberta provincial government has done the exact opposite.
Public Interest Alberta conducts a biennial survey of child care operators to identify the issues impacting the sector within Alberta. The most recent survey results, released January 2021, overwhelmingly confirm that, not only are child care operators struggling due to the pandemic, but that the pre-pandemic cuts to funding by the current provincial government are making a bad situation even worse. Unfortunately, and some would say, predictably, the budget released February 25th, 2021, by the UCP government provided no relief whatsoever for this sector.
One of the most egregious cuts identified by survey respondents was the end of the Benefit Contribution Grant – a program that offsets the costs of mandatory employer payroll contributions like the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, vacation pay and statutory holiday pay. The elimination of this grant has resulted in operators increasing the fees paid by parents, cutting back on program supplies, and reducing care staff. Also, as is increasingly the practice of this government, 75% of the respondents confirmed there had been no consultation with them before the cuts were announced and implemented.
It must also be noted that the overwhelming majority of child care sector workers are women. Therefore, any government cuts which reduce the sector’s ability to fairly compensate and maintain its workforce is yet another blow to women as they continue to bear the economic brunt of inequality.
To invest in and to advocate for a system of high-quality, accessible, and affordable child care is to enhance women’s workforce participation and to support a sector which is woman-dominated. In recognition of International Women’s Day 2021, let’s demand that our government invest in this proven and highly effective intervention for women and their families. Let us all demand that all women benefit equitably as we recover economically, emotionally, and physically from this year of pandemic life.