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Pandemic job losses threaten to leave women behind permanently, RBC warns

Jerty Gaa is one of the nearly 500,000 women in Canada who remain unemployed amid the pandemic.

She found herself on hiatus from her job as a hotel attendant in Vancouver when lockdown measures were introduced last spring. Then, months later, another blow. At the end of July, she says she and most of the other staff at the hotel were let go.

According to the most recent job numbers from Statistics Canada, as of the end of January, Canada’s economy had 858,000 fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic. But those losses are not being borne evenly across the board

Women — especially ones who weren’t earning much to begin with — are bearing the brunt of the job losses, as they made up a majority of the work force in hard-hit sectors like hospitality, retail and food.

According to a new analysis by RBC published Thursday, nearly 100,000 working-age Canadian women have completely left the workforce since the pandemic started, which means they aren’t even trying to get a job any more. The figure for men is more than 10 times smaller — a sign that on the whole, they are not feeling quite so gloomy about their prospects.

While some parts of the economy are reopening, public-facing, high-contact jobs — like those in the hotel industry — are still languishing, or at the very least trying to change the way they operate on the fly. That often means running with fewer staff, and the longer that goes on, the more likely it is those jobs are gone forever, according to Dawn Desjardins, one of the authors of the RBC report.

“The longer these women are out of the labour force, the greater the risk of skills erosion, which could potentially hamper their ability to get rehired or to transition to different roles as the economy evolves,” the report says.

Structural change

For Gaa, it’s been almost a full year without a job. While she is hoping to go back once the hospitality sector opens up, she doesn’t know when it’ll happen, of if she will manage to get her old job back once the sector recovers.

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A masked waitress moves among the tables on an outdoor restaurant patio in London, Ont. Women with jobs in the food industry have been particularly hard hit during this pandemic. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Despite working overnight shifts for 11 years, Gaa only received eight weeks’ worth of severance. She says she was told that was the maximum employees can get with the pandemic.

“I expect that I’m going to retire there. I work so hard. I do what I can do and try to do my best, working overnight shifts. It’s not easy,” Gaa said. “We do our job and this is what we get. They don’t care about us.”

She’s still holding out hope she’ll be able to get her job back once vaccines are distributed and things return to normal. The 54-year-old says she’s taking things one day at a time and is hoping not to have to switch careers at her age.

A job change at this point would mean a pay cut from about $27 an hour to something closer to the minimum wage of $15 an hour, she says. That’s not enough for her to live on.

Gaa said she’s had to dip into her retirement savings and didn’t want to tell her kids, as she thinks of herself as pretty independent. One of her daughters, who works in the casino industry, has also been forced out of work.

Uneven recovery

It’s not just different industries being hit unevenly, either. The RBC report shows that the job losses are worse for members of certain demographic groups, too. Mothers, visible minorities, young people and new immigrants are all disproportionately impacted.

Winny Shen, an associate professor at Schulich School of Business who studies inclusion in the workplace, worries career interruptions like the ones we’re seeing now might signal to employers that women are less committed. She says that can have repercussions on a company’s willingness to spend money on retraining.

Coming out of the pandemic, there might also be a tendency for companies to tighten the purse strings in general, Shen says. There might be issues with understaffing — asking people to do more with fewer people as a way to cut costs.

A long-term issue

Almost a year since that initial lockdown, a sizeable number of Canadian women are at risk of their skills atrophying, Desjardins finds.

“There could be changes underway that are more structural in nature, that are going to be more long-lasting,” she said.

She says economists even have a name for it — they call it the scarring effect. She says some of the skills you have diminish when you’re not using them.

“The longer you’re out, the harder it is sometimes to get back into those networks— to hear this place is happening or these are the jobs that are in demand,” Desjardins said.

valentina dzeoba
Valentina Dzeoba, who lives in Thunder Bay, Ont., was downsized from a manufacturing job before the pandemic hit and has since decided to retrain as a hairdresser. (Valentina Dzeoba)

The economist points to a few areas of potential job growth, like child care, remote working or digital sales.

“Knowing how to participate in the digital economy is really essential,” Desjardins said, adding that both the government and business will have a role to play in moving people into training programs.

Forced to pivot

Valentina Dzeoba has also been unemployed for more than a year. The Thunder Bay, Ont. resident was let go due to downsizing at the local Bombardier plant before the pandemic.

For a while, she was working one day a week helping people retrain to find work, but says jobs in the community are hard to come by.

Like many people, Dzeoba has pivoted, going from manufacturing to retraining as a hairdresser. She says it’s something she’s always been interested in, and that the change has been beneficial.

“I’m in the business of making people feel good,” said Dzeoba. “I love it.”

Desjardins said the country needs everyone to continue working to ensure a prosperous economy. She said that if women participated at the same rate as men, it would add $100 billion to Canada’s GDP every year.

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To find secure jobs, women will likely need more digital skills or look in fields like child care, suggests economist Dawn Desjardins. (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

She said that as a result, everyone enjoys a bigger piece of the economic pie. “We want everyone who wants a job to have a job.”

Jerty Gaa said she’s happy to have received the Canada emergency response benefit as well as unemployment insurance. But at the same time, she said, “people are going to be happier if we keep our jobs.”

She wants to know what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier are doing to prevent permanent layoffs.

Hairdresser-in-training Dzeoba says she was nervous about starting over. But it turned out everyone in her program was nervous, too.

When she’s done training, Dzeoba thinks she’ll be able to get a job — hopefully under a senior stylist, so she can keep learning. For other women considering a major shift, she suggests networking and reaching out to employment centres.

“There’s a lot to be depressed about, but there is help out there,” said Dzeoba.

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