The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on workers and families across the country, but in many ways it has been women who have faced the brunt of the pandemic’s economic fallout.
A July report by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) found that Canada has been shaken by a recession unlike any other. The recession is characterized not just by the scope of damage it has inflicted on the Canadian economy, but also by the blow it has dealt to women. In just a couple of months, the COVID-19 pandemic knocked women’s participation in the labour force down from a near-historic high to its lowest level in over 30 years. From March to June, the unemployment rate of women surpassed that of men for the first time in over three decades. And women’s employment, which is dominant in the sectors hardest hit by the recession, has been slower to rebound as the economy reopens.
At the beginning of August, 4.7 million Canadians were receiving the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Of that number, 1.4 million are eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) under the current rules, and many would receive less than $500 per week. Low-wage earners and those working in sectors heavily impacted by the pandemic, such as hospitality, the arts, retail, and airlines – the majority of which are women – will be most affected. As well, 57 per cent of the CERB recipients who are at risk of being ineligible for EI are women. The government has announced that CERB will be ending and will be replaced by several programs, including enhanced EI, but these changes are temporary. And in most cases, recipients will be receiving less money.
As governments continue to reopen the economy, the plight of women needs to at the forefront of their agendas if we are going to have a recovery that benefits all Canadians. One of the central issues for a proper recovery is childcare. Childcare has always been an issue that disproportionately affects women, as it has been women who have largely shouldered those responsibilities at home. A recovery plan that does not seriously address issues surrounding childcare will leave far too many women behind.
For decades, women have been telling us that childcare is essential. But the high price of daycare has always been one of the biggest obstacles to achieving an affordable and accessible childcare system, and today it is the second largest cost for parents after housing. Sometimes, childcare is even more expensive than a mortgage. Families in Toronto can pay as much as $21,000 per year for an infant, or $14,500 per year for a young kid, with many families paying much more. The lack of available daycare spaces is another challenge. In Toronto last year, there were 109,105 children under the age of four, but only 46,050 licensed childcare spaces for that age group.
COVID-19 has made the childcare crisis even worse. As businesses reopen, childcare providers are reducing their capacity due to physical distancing measures. And as schools are set to reopen, parents are worried about sending their kids back safely. Women may not be able to return to work because they shoulder more childcare responsibilities and they may have to refuse work if the issue of childcare is not addressed by governments.
A federal NDP motion has passed in the House of Commons, with support from the Liberal government, for an immediate investment of $2.5 billion in childcare to stabilize the industry and to help subsidize providers who are complying with public health directives. But more needs to be done if we truly want to help parents.
For more than 20 years, the Liberals have been promising a universal childcare system, but their promises have never been followed up with action. Now is not the time for more promises – we need urgent action. It is time to build a universal childcare system that delivers the help that families need. Beyond the immediate investment of $2.5 billion, the government must invest an additional $10 billion over the next four years. This will help fund 500,000 affordable, public, licensed childcare spaces, and could eventually lead to a system that costs parents $10 per day.
John Horgan’s B.C. NDP government has setup a pilot program that follows this model, and parents have said it is life changing. They pay $10 per child per day or less for full-time daycare. That’s just $200 a month – a drastic change from the $1,360 monthly median cost for infant childcare in Vancouver – and the program is saving families up to $15,000 per child per year. For some families, the difference is everything: their credit cards aren’t maxed out every month, they can buy nutritious food, and are now able to access better housing.
In the long term, government must also bring in legislation to enshrine the commitment to quality, affordable, and publicly funded childcare into law, and set out the principles, conditions, and requirements for federal transfer payments to provinces. Studies show that affordable childcare gives back to the economy. In Quebec, for every dollar the government spends on childcare, the economy sees a return of $1.50. It pays for itself and then some.
Women make up about half of Canada’s workforce – and our workforce cannot afford to lose them. It’s simple. There can be no COVID-19 recovery without women fully recovering, and they cannot recover without access to childcare. Affordable and accessible childcare is and will continue to be fundamental to restarting our economy.