Fiscal update brings more talk about help for working women, but precious few details

Ottawa’s fiscal update on Monday outlined what the government is proposing to do to help the economy survive the pandemic, and thrive as the country emerges from it some time soon. 

And policy makers say a big part of that recovery will hinge on what help is coming for one of the hardest hit demographic groups: women.

Women have been disproportionately hit by the job losses that have come with COVID-19, economists at Royal Bank noted in a recent report on the topic.

While overall employment is still well short of where it was before the pandemic, economists Dawn Desjardins and Carrie Freestone calculated that roughly 68,000 men joined the labour force between February and October, while more than 20,000 women have left it over the same time frame.

A major reason for that exodus, experts say, is because women are bearing a disproportionate burden of child care and are being forced to choose caregiving over their own career ambitions.

Ottawa hinted it wanted to create a national child care program in its throne speech in September, and reiterated that wish in Monday’s fiscal update. But while the government did earmark some money into exploring the idea, it is still a long way from becoming reality.

Choosing between daycare or career

Women know all too well how badly it is needed now.

Janel Sherise is a hairstylist and mother in Mississauga, just west of Toronto.

She was on maternity leave before the pandemic started, but when that ended, she found her income as a hair stylist had dried up so she faced a problem familiar to many working mothers: choosing between finding the money to pay for daycare, or putting her own career on hold.

“I’m used to being in the work force and helping to provide for my family,” she said, “but it’s just not feasible.”

LISTEN | Janel Sherise spoke with the CBC’s Matt Galloway about life for working mothers in a pandemic

The Current19:30What a pandemic ‘she-covery’ might look like

The pandemic has led to what’s been called a she-cession, forcing many women out of employment. We speak to Janel Sherise, a mother who had to choose between work and child care, but is finding new ways to make a living. And we discuss what a “she-covery” might look like with Dawn Desjardins, deputy chief economist with RBC, and Anjum Sultana, national director of public policy and strategic communications at YWCA Canada. 19:30

She has launched a business out of her home selling cheesecakes to help pay the bills, but it’s a tough grind.

“I’m definitely working through naps,” she says. A national daycare program would help, but she knows that working mothers like her need immediate help now or they risk being left behind. 

Torontonian Gina Vivian has a similar story.

Nurse Gina Vivian had to stop working in March when the pandemic struck to take care of her twin boys. (Submitted by Gina Vivian)

As a home-care nurse, she was used to shift work and the time pressures that go along with that, but then schools closed in March. 

Suddenly, she was unable to continue accepting shifts because she had to take care of — and help teach — her twin six-year-old boys.

“There was absolutely no way I could work,” she said in an interview. “And I feel a lot of guilt for that, but I couldn’t work.”

Vivian’s kids went back to school in September so she is looking for full-time work again, but is finding it difficult to navigate the world of online job applications.

She worries that every day she’s away from nursing is a day that puts her further and further behind. “My career is a big part of me and it’s not something I want to let go of,” she said.

‘She-cession’

To economist Armine Yalnizyan, Sherise and Vivian are two casualties of the current “she-cession” — a term she coined to describe the threat she sees that decades of progress made on behalf of women in the workforce is being undone.

“The moment is extremely urgent and … we have no more time to waste,” Yalnizyan said in an interview.

Historically, one of the best tools governments have at their disposal to try to stimulate an economy coming out of a shock would be spending on large, capital intensive infrastructure projects to get people working.

But “there’s not enough men to do the jobs that the women have lost,” Yalnizyan said.

“The playbook for recovery has got to be different than the old-fashioned playbook, which has been shovel-ready infrastructure, we’ve got to do more to get more women back.”

Economist Armine Yalnizyan says decades of progress for women in the work force is being lost as a result of the pandemic. (Christopher Katsarov/The Atkinson Foundation)

Child care is a huge part of that, she said, because it is primarily women that have been bearing the burden of child care through this pandemic, whether they have lost their job or are being asked to do it on top of it.

“It’s just impossible for too many people,” she said. “And we’re not doing enough to make it less impossible right now.”

It’s not just a problem for women, either. Ottawa laid out an ambitious and expensive fiscal update on Monday, pledging to spend between $70 and $100 billion as a shot in the arm for Canada’s economy as it recovers from COVID-19.

According to research by Desjardins at RBC, that’s the same price tag as would be added to the economy simply by making sure the female participation rate in the labour force is as much as the male rate.

That alone would add $100 billion to Canada’s GDP each and every year.

“It’s a very material lift to Canada and to our prosperity,” she said.

Pandemic’s impact on women ‘enormous’

While the virus that causes COVID-19 does not discriminate, Anjum Sultana, national director of public policy at YWCA Canada, said that isn’t the case for the economic side of things.

“The gendered impact of this crisis has been enormous,” she said in an interview.

She said she liked what she saw in some of the broad details announced Monday, including $20 million earmarked to establish the Federal Secretariat on Early Learning and Child Care, which will be tasked with handling any national child care program, and $420 million to support the training and retention of more early childhood educators. But more is needed.

“The question is — is it enough, and is it going to get here fast enough?”

For women like Sherise, help can’t come soon enough. So in the meantime, she and the working mothers in her social circle will keep doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. 

“We all kind of fell into the same predicament of we’re just going to have to be entrepreneurs because we can’t go back,” she said.

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