Written by Emily Kroboth, 2020 Graduate, Queens Law School
The COVID-19 Pandemic has taken a highlighter to persistent inequities in Canada. The cracks between those who have support, resources and options and those who do not have only deepened, and while the pandemic has presented a seemingly bottomless problem, it also presents an opportunity to decide how we should shape the policy designed to bring us out of the pandemic and resulting economic recession. The economy will take time to rebound, but the nature and ethos of that rebound is yet to be determined. The CERB and CESB programs have helped many in the interim, but it’s time to turn to more long-term policies designed to not only bring the Canadian economy out of recession, but to also prevent the debilitating side-effects of job loss and school closures. One such policy is the introduction of a national, subsidized childcare program.
Such a program is necessary to allow women to return to work in the same way men can. A report recently published by the Royal Bank of Canada states that women’s participation in the workforce plummeted to its lowest point in 3 decades, with employment among women with toddler-aged or school-aged children falling by 7% since February and employment among single mothers falling by 12%. Although the initial amount of job-loss was roughly the same for men and women (1.5 million each), it’s the rebound that poses the largest challenge: men’s employment almost returned to pre-market levels in June, while women’s workforce participation sits at 3% below what it was in February. With uncertainty as to whether schools will open in the fall, and in what capacity, the question of how these women will be able to return to work remains unanswered.
The reasons why women are more greatly impacted by the pandemic are both entrenched and tired. Women typically shoulder more unpaid labour in the home, such as a childcare and eldercare, and 71% of Canadian women are “secondary-earners” – meaning they earn less than their partners. In situations of economic uncertainty, many families are forced to prioritize the higher-earner’s career, resulting in a fractured employment record for the lower-earner and an increased chance that they will fall out of the workforce altogether. These contributing factors are only aggravated by the fact that this recession has impacted many female-dominated industries, such as hospitality and food services, and resulted in closures of schools and daycare centres. If schools, daycares and camps remain closed or at limited capacity for the foreseeable future, women may opt to return only to part-time work, as opposed to full-time, in order to balance childcare commitments. This could compromise their participation in benefits programs, if those programs are contingent on full-time employment. It’s time for the federal government to intervene, for now and for good.
The case for national, subsidized childcare has existed for a long, long time. Quebec has run a successful program since 1997, as evidenced by the increase in female workforce participation from 74% in 1997 to 87% in 2018. The implementation of a national childcare system was last seriously discussed in 2005: 10 bilateral agreements between the federal government and the provinces were signed, and the details of the program were set to be worked out – however the program, dubbed, “The Foundations Program” was dismantled after the 2006 election.
The impact that the pandemic is exacting upon working women is a worthy catalyst to reignite the discussion surrounding universal daycare. Government investment in childcare presents a doubly attractive solution: childcare centres typically employ women, which would send more women back to work, and an increase in childcare services would allow working moms in other fields to re-enter the workforce, or stop having to pull double-duty trying to balance working from home with the demands of childcare. Daycare, of course, will have to look different before a vaccine for COVID-19 is created and effectively distributed: daycare centres will have to be smaller, carefully sanitized, and childcare providers must ensure that children keep their distance from one another (no small feat, depending on the children’s ages). The Ontario government, for example, has already allowed childcare centres to reopen in Stage 2 of its reopening plan, under strict guidelines. But the caps on how many children can be kept in a room together, although necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, means that less parents will have access to these services. Furthermore, the increased costs of operating a properly sanitized childcare centre could result in the closure of many of these businesses, creating a domino effect that ends in the toppling of women’s workforce gains.
These businesses need help, and women need more of these businesses. This is a problem worthy of government intervention, though some may cry out about the increasing federal deficit. The fact is, even if you don’t believe in the inherent value of women’s workforce participation, increased female participation in the workforce is demonstrably good for the economy as a whole. Investment in childcare creates a return in the form of increased employment, and as a result, increased spending and tax revenue, according to a 2015 paper published by the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives. Further, a national childcare program would help lift children and families out of poverty in general (pandemic or no pandemic) allowing both parents in a two-parent household to work, and ensuring affordable childcare for single-parent families with children under 5. In Canada’s largest cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, the average cost of one month of childcare is $1685 and $1400, respectively. If a parent doesn’t make much more than that per month, it forces trade-offs between childcare and staying in the workforce. For single parent families, it could mean opting for government assistance.
The pandemic has simply shined a spotlight on something that was always needed and necessary. It’s time that the federal government return to discussions about how an affordable, accessible and, in the time of coronavirus, safe and sanitary national childcare program can be rolled out across Canada. Childcare is a crucial part of gender equity and women’s workforce participation. It’s a crucial part of lifting families out of poverty. Its benefits are staggering, and although the initial investment may be steep, it’s time to play the long-game.
Do not disregard the needs of women, particularly low-income women, in the economic rebound. This pandemic is not women’s work.
Emily Kroboth, “COVID-19 is not “women’s work”: the case for universal childcare” Canadian Law of Work Forum (July 28 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/?p=12919