Federal action plan for women’s economic recovery must target those left behind: Report

New study reviews a year of COVID-19’s impacts on women in the labour market
March 8, 2021

OTTAWA—On International Women’s Day and ahead of the 2021 federal budget, a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives argues that targeted government action is needed to support women, who have borne the brunt of the economic impacts of COVID-19.

The report, Women, work and COVID-19: Priorities for supporting women and the economy, analyzes the impact a year of COVID-19 has had on women in the labour market and recommends policy measures to address the crisis. 

“Budget 2021 is a critical moment in the economic recovery for women. After decades of gender equality progress was wiped away in two short months during 2020, the budget must contain meaningful action and funding for universal child care, training and skills-building, and making recent temporary changes to EI permanent,” says report author and CCPA senior researcher Katherine Scott. 

By the end of 2020, there were 90,000 more women outside the labour market compared to February of that year, with female workers reporting 8% fewer hours worked and an employment rate 2.7 percentage points lower than before the pandemic. Their economic recovery has largely stalled in recent months, especially among low-income, racialized and immigrant women. 

“Today, more women are back at work and have picked up lost hours, but the recovery remains as inequitable as the downturn was,” adds Scott. 

Among the study’s findings: 

  • For single mothers, the economic lockdown wiped out two decades of economic progress in a single stroke: by December single-parent mothers with children under 6 were working 39% fewer hours than in February, while single mothers with school-aged children (6-12 years) were working 12% fewer hours.
  • Between February and April more than one in four (27%) of all mothers with young children who were working in February lost hours. By November, the rate of mothers with children 12 and under working less than half their usual hours was 55% higher than a year previous. Fathers effectively recouped their employment losses by August. 
  • Women ages 15-24 experienced the greatest initial employment losses in March and April 2020, and by December their employment was still down 12.1% compared to February 2020. 
  • Black, racialized, and Indigenous women – working in hard hit sectors and occupations – bore the brunt of first wave employment losses. These gaps have narrowed somewhat between July and December but are still significant. For Indigenous women living off reserve, the employment rate fell from 56% to 48% between February and December.
  • Low-wage women and their families are in the fight of their economic lives while high-income earners have continued to prosper. By December 2020, 18% of female workers earning less than $17 an hour were still coping with pandemic-related employment losses.
  • The number of female recipients of employment insurance (EI) in mid-January 2021 was 6.5 times higher than in February 2020, representing a significant increase in the number of female beneficiaries and their share compared to men. This was a direct result of the new “temporary” rules for EI that broadened eligibility, and the new round of economic closures in the fall. 

“Income security programs, like EI and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, have played a critical role in offsetting a devastating collapse in employment earnings, but women need ongoing support,” said Scott.

The report finds that overall, the federal government’s pandemic response is “gender aware,” but it fails to get at the structural factors at the root of gender inequality. Investments in the care economy have been hit and miss, including a failure to address the crisis in child care.

It recommends that an action plan for inclusive economic recovery for women should include implementing universal, publicly funded child care across the country; strengthening gender-based violence services; investing significantly in the care economy; putting in place a training and skills-building plan that prioritizes women’s access to decent work in emerging sectors (like the green economy), as well as those in which they are currently represented; and modernizing income security programs on a permanent basis. 

The full report is available for download on the CCPA website.


For interviews contact: Alyssa O’Dell, CCPA media and public relations officer, at 343-998-7575 or [email protected].

The CCPA is an independent, non-profit charitable research institute founded in 1980.