Unemployment during COVID-19: Who is Exiting Canada’s Workforce and Why

Updated: Mar 23

Illustrations by Alex McPhail, BA (Hons)

Hi, my name is Roma (she/her) and I am the author of this post! I am a cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled South Asian woman. I currently reside on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, Neutral, Mississaugas of the First Credit Nation, and Mississauga Peoples. This unceded land of Treaty 3 3/4 and Treaty 8 is currently known as Burlington, Ontario. The post you will now read is going to examine the gendered impact of COVID-19 on employment. I would like to acknowledge my privilege as someone who can afford not to work full-time and has free housing (with my parents) during this time. I will delve into research that focuses on racialized groups, Indigenous Peoples, the LGBTQ2S+ community, and the disabled community. My intention is not to speak on behalf of these groups, but to bring more attention to the scientifically-backed research and experiences of communities that are historically and currently under-researched. While this post treats these groups separately, I recognize that intersecting identities can lead to even greater barriers and inequities in access to safe and stable employment. As a researcher and writer who is passionate about health justice, I am committed to responsible allyship. I encourage feedback on this post should I misrepresent any of the communities I attempt to amplify. I hope you find this post helpful and engaging! Happy reading!

Women in Canada have been disproportionately impacted by the surge in unemployment as a result of COVID-19. In this post, we will discuss the pandemic’s impact on job loss in relation to:

Women in Canada

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge plummet in employment rates in Canada. However, this was not a gender-neutral phenomenon. In March 2020, at the beginning of the crisis, the monthly decline in employment for women aged 25 to 54 was more than twice than that for men in the same age group (1*). 19.2% of these women lost all or the majority of their typical working hours, versus 13.9% of men.

Women were also more likely to “fall out” of the paid workforce than men. “Falling out” specifically refers to individuals who were terminated or lost their jobs but did not seek reemployment. This means that there were more Canadian women who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and did not search for new employment. In March 2020, two-thirds of workers aged 25 to 54 who had recently worked, wanted a job, but were not seeking employment were women (1*). Half of women who lost their job between February and May 2020 and 32% of women who lost their job between February and June were not actively seeking work (2*).

The causes for this are unclear and likely multi-faceted. Firstly, women in Canada earn less per dollar than a similarly qualified man. In 2016, white women earned 67 cents per every dollar earned by white men (3*). Racialized women earned just 59 cents per every dollar earned by white men. During COVID-19, this means that it may be more economical for women to utilize federal and provincial financial support (e.g., Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)) than to seek employment, especially if the type of employment they are seeking is underpaid (2*). This may be compounded by the fact that women, especially those who are earning less than their partners, may feel a responsibility to take over informal, unpaid care at home.

Racialized Groups

When looking at the impact of COVID-19 on racialized groups we see that Black, Arab, Chinese, and South Asian people are at significantly greater risk of unemployment. While the national unemployment rate in July 2020 was 11.3%, the unemployment rate was >16% among these racialized groups (4*). Within South Asian and Black Canadian communities, women faced a greater impact compared to men. One reason for this disparity in unemployment rates is that individuals belonging to a racialized group are more likely to work in industries that were the hardest hit during the lockdown, notably, the accommodation and food service industries. Unemployment rates among recent immigrants (<5 years in Canada) were also significantly higher than the national average in July 2020.

The greater impact of COVID-19 unemployment and work disruptions on racialized women is significant because racialized groups are already more likely to live in structural poverty than the white population, even prior to the pandemic (5). Recent immigrants are also more likely to be in poverty than long-term immigrants and individuals born in what is currently Canada. Prior economic and social disadvantages compounded with the widespread decline in employment rate due to COVID-19 makes it more difficult for structurally vulnerable groups to meet financial obligations and essential needs such as rent/mortgage payments, utilities, and groceries.

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples have also been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Drops in employment among the Indigenous vs non-Indigenous population in Canada were similar at the start of the pandemic (6*). However, prior to the pandemic, Indigenous Peoples already had an unemployment rate 1.8x higher than the national average. This is due to long-standing and persistent labour market inequities that disadvantage Indigenous Peoples. Notably, Indigenous Peoples are less likely to gain employment in occupations which require post-secondary education and generally pay better (7). Indigenous employees working full-time also earn less than non-Indigenous employees working full-time.

Indigenous populations experience higher rates of structural poverty than the non-Indigenous population (8-9*). This can be exacerbated by the negative impact of COVID-19 on employment within these communities. Notably, poverty is linked to limited access to healthcare services and negative mental health (8). This poses significant issues for these individuals if they contract COVID-19 and/or are required to self-isolate. This is even more troubling when we consider that Indigenous Peoples already experience limited access to care due to geographical isolation and also have poorer mental health (8).

Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable during this time. Indigenous women have experienced lower employment rates than Indigenous men during COVID-19 (6*). One possible reason for this is that Indigenous women are more likely to engage in part-time work and part-time workers have experienced more job losses during the pandemic. Indigenous women may also be more severely impacted by increases in unpaid care work which may be worsened by the fact that Indigenous Peoples are more likely to be lone parents (6*, 9*). Balancing unpaid care work, job searching, economic difficulties, on top of the general stress of the pandemic can pose significant mental burden on Indigenous families. This may encourage Indigenous women to take on even lower paying and risky work.

Indigenous workers have experienced a slower employment recovery rate to pre-pandemic levels (6*). This means that more Indigenous Peoples are staying unemployed due to the pandemic for a longer period of time. This has negative implications for the financial security of these communities. Financial insecurity can lead Indigenous youth, the age demographic that saw the starkest decline in employment, to forego or delay higher education. Notably, Indigenous Peoples are already less likely to attain post-secondary education, which partially explains their low employment rate in job sectors that require higher education (10). Underfunding of education of Indigenous territories, lack of post-secondary institutions in remote locations, and unreliable internet connection in these areas are just some of the structural barriers that prevent Indigenous Peoples from obtaining high school level and higher education. Inuit youth, for example, are the least likely to get a diploma, degree, or certificate due to the lack of post-secondary institutions in the Inuit Nunagut.

However, this is not the full picture. Indigenous Peoples, even those who have attained higher education, find it difficult to find employment that reflects their education level (10). First Nations Peoples find it more difficult to find employment than Métis and non-Indigenous Peoples. The major barriers to gaining employment as cited by self-identified Indigenous Peoples belonging to various Indigenous sovereignties were lack of available jobs in their communities, lack of job-specific education and training, and lack of prior work experience. Lack of transportation to jobs and poor understanding of how to find a job are also contributors. Workplace discrimination makes it difficult for Indigenous Peoples to feel satisfied, safe, and secure in the employment they do find.

However, there is still good news and possibilities for improvement. Notably, culturally-appropriate and land-based skills training led by Indigenous Peoples for their own communities can significantly improve employment rates (10). Wrap-around support such as transportation services and childcare support can also have a positive impact. Importantly, Indigenous youth are the fastest growing segment of the population in what is currently Canada and are a key demographic to advancing the economy. Indigenous-led educational and skills training can help Indigenous youth incorporate into the labour market, leading to the improved well-being of these communities and a greater diversity of the workforce. However, this will only happen if we address the long-standing and intersecting barriers that prevent Indigenous Peoples from accessing education and employment, and how these have been exacerbated by COVID-19 policies.

The LGBTQ2S+ Community

There is also evidence that LGBTQ2S+ individuals have been disproportionately impacted by unemployment due to COVID-19 in Canada. A survey conducted in partnership by Egale Canada and Innovative Research Group of 3,000 adult Canadians in March 2020 revealed some notable insights (11). More LGBTQ2S+ households reported layoffs and reduced hours and less LGBTQ2S+ individuals felt confident about their job prospects and ability to find another job. When asked about the perceived impact of the pandemic on their physical health, mental health, household finances, and overall quality of life, LGBTQ2S+ individuals report a greater negative impact across all measures.

LGBTQ2S+ individuals historically face more workplace discrimination in Canada and lower levels of employment. “Lack of fit” has been commonly used by employers as justifications for employment discrimination preventing LGBTQ2S+ individuals from gaining employment or being promoted to higher paying positions (12). Having to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace is a reality for many LGBTQ2S+ individuals, a reality which is non-affirming and exhausting to maintain. This may be even more difficult with the increase in video calling during remote work. LGBTQ2S+ individuals may have to hide pride-related objects in their home, a place where they should feel most safe to express their identity, in order to remain closeted at their job. While more gender and sexually diverse individuals have been incorporated into the Canadian workforce in the last couple decades, this positive trend is threatened if LGBTQ2S+ individuals are disproportionately affected by unemployment during the pandemic.

Additionally, more LGBTQ2S+ individuals report having a physical disability or chronic condition, and a larger segment of this community identifies as BIPOC than the national average (11). This means that more LGBTQ2S+ individuals face compounded disadvantages due to the intersections of their identities. As noted in previous sections, BIPOC individuals have faced greater unemployment rates due to the pandemic as well as greater economic disadvantages due to long-standing disparities in access to education, stable and well-paying jobs, and healthcare.

The Disabled Community

The rise in employment during COVID-19 has also disproportionately impacted disabled individuals. More than one-third of disabled individuals who were working prior to the pandemic experienced job loss or a reduction in working hours at the advent of the pandemic (13). Those with multiple long-term conditions were more likely to report job loss. Even prior to the pandemic, disabled individuals report lower levels of employment and were more likely to live below the poverty line. Loss of income during COVID-19 can make it difficult for disabled persons to meet basic needs such as food, grocery, and personal protective equipment. 61% of disabled individuals in July 2020 report being unable to meet at least one essential need or financial obligation.

Disabled individuals also face unique challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions. Regular access to healthcare and transportation services can be very important for disabled persons to carry out activities of daily living (14). Disabled individuals experience higher levels of depression and loneliness, which can make social isolation more difficult. Individuals with certain chronic conditions may also have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and may be at risk for more health-related complications if this happens. Disabled persons who also identify as LGBTQ2S+ may also face limitations in access to medical care due to lack of gender-affirming care and medical mistrust due to discrimination in healthcare settings. This puts them at an even higher risk of inadequate care if they contract COVID-19.

Where Are We Now?

As of April 2020, women’s participation in the Canadian workforce had dropped to its lowest level in three decades (2*). But where are we now?

While the employment rate has significantly rebounded in the last few months, there is still a troubling, gendered impact when we consider sex-disaggregated data. Overall, men account for most of the employment gains that were lost due to the pandemic and women continue to exit the workforce (15*). There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the industries in which women are overrepresented, such as the accommodation and food industries, have been slower to recover since these industries are not conducive to remote work. The surge in professional, scientific, and technical services due to the pandemic has largely benefitted men, with ¾ of these positions being filled by men.

As mentioned previously, women have also shouldered more at-home, unpaid care work during lockdown which may be forcing women to forego formal employment. This is bolstered by the data which shows that as of November 2020, women represent ~64% of the population that has fallen out of the workforce – that is people who have lost their jobs, are not temporarily unemployed, and are not actively seeking work (15*).

Long-term Consequences

There are long-term side effects of women and gender diverse folks dropping out of the workforce. Being out of the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic puts women at risk of long-term job separation and loss of practical job-specific skills (15*). This may make it more difficult for women to find work when they want to return to the workforce and puts women at risk of an even wider gender wage gap than prior to the pandemic. There is also a fear we will return to traditional gender roles, where women are seen as more suited to and responsible for at-home, unpaid care work (something which has already started to become a reality. More on this here!

Finally, as we have seen, unemployment rates have been greater for racialized, Indigenous, and LGBTQ2S+ individuals due to long-standing barriers in access to stable, safe, and secure employment. These groups also face greater economic insecurity and may experience unique challenges with COVID-19 policies such as lockdowns. Interactions between historical inequities compounded by the new and unexpected realities of the pandemic means that individuals belonging to structurally vulnerable groups may be more severely impacted during this time. Unless these issues are addressed, we risk further excluding diverse racialized women and gender diverse folks from the Canadian workforce and further sidelining these historically oppressed groups.

Calls to Action

We suggest the following calls to action to address the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Acknowledging the problem

  • Recognize that the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 are not gender neutral

  • Conduct more sex-disaggregated, race-disaggregated, disability-disaggregated, and gender-disaggregated research to better understand how COVID-19 impacts equity-deserving populations

Addressing the problem

  • Address the long-standing disparities faced by BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, and disabled women and gender diverse folks from accessing stable, secure, and safe employment

  • Address the long-standing disparities faced by BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, and disabled women and gender diverse folks which make the economic fallouts of COVID-19 even more challenging for these groups

  • Enact policies that address the unique health-related needs of disabled folks and LGBTQ2S+ folks

  • Prioritize women and gender diverse folks in re-employment strategies and policies to reduce barriers impeding their ability to re-enter the workforce

  • Work towards closing the gender wage gap between women and men and between white women and Women of Colour

  • Increase funding and improve access to childcare services

  • Increased quality and safety of childcare services

  • Adopt more flexible work hours and encouraging men to take on more flexible work so that unpaid care work can be more equally distributed among heterosexual households

  • Challenge gender stereotypes and discrimination so that women are encouraged to seek employment in in professional, scientific, and technical services and face less barriers to accessing these professions

  • Challenge gender roles which put the burden of unpaid, care work on women

Read on how sex workers have been affected amidst COVID-19.

Some of the data available and used to inform this post compares women and men. The term “women” is used when referring to cisgender women or where research did not specifically mention the gender identity of women included.

*These sources do not specify the gender identity of the women included. Historical representation leads us to believe only cisgender women were included.

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1. Statistics Canada. Labour force survey, March 2020. Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200409/dq200409a-eng.htm?HPA=1.

2. Desjardins D, Freestone C, Powell N. Pandemic threatens decades of women’s labour force gains.RBC Economics; 2020 Jul. Available from: https://thoughtleadership.rbc.com/pandemic-threatens-decades-of-womens-labour-force-gains/.

3. Block S, Galabuzi GE, & Tranjan R. Canada’s colour coded income inequality. Canadian Centre for Policy Initiatives; 2019 Dec. Available from: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2019/12/Canada%27s%20Colour%20Coded%20Income%20Inequality.pdf.

4. Statistics Canada. Labour force survey, July 2020. Available from:https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200807/dq200807a-eng.htm.

5. Hou F, Frank K, & Schimmele C. Economic impact of COVID-19 among visible minority groups. Statistics Canada; 2020 Jul. Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00042-eng.htm

6. Bleakney A, Masoud H, & Robertson H. Labour market impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous people: March to August 2020. Statistics Canada; 2020 Nov. Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00085-eng.htm.

7. Statistics Canada. Aboriginal people and the labour market. 2017 Mar. Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/170316/dq170316d-eng.htm.

8. Wein F. Tackling poverty in Indigenous communities in Canada. National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health; 2017. Available from: https://www.nccih.ca/docs/determinants/FS-TacklingPovertyCanada-SDOH-Wien-EN.pdf.

9.Ciceri C & Scott K. The determination of employment among Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium International. 2006;3: 3-32. Available from: https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/aprci/132/.

10. Skudra M, Avgerinos A, & McCallum KE. Mapping the landscape: Indigenous skills training and jobs in Canada. Diversity Institute; 2020 Jun. Available from: https://fsc-ccf.ca/research/mapping-the-landscape-indigenous-skills-training-and-jobs-in-canada/.

11. Egale Canada. Impact of COVID-19: Canada’s LGBTQIA2S community in focus. 2020 Apr. Available from: https://egale.ca/egale-in-action/covid19-impact-report/.

12. Waite S, Ecker J, Ross LE. A systematic review and thematic synthesis of Canada’s LGBTQ2S+ employment, labour market and earnings literature. PloS One. 2019;14(10): e0223372. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223372.

13. Statistics Canada. Impacts of COVID-19 on persons with disabilities. 2020 Aug. Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200827/dq200827c-eng.htm.

14. Lebrasseur A, Fortin-Bénard N, Lettre J, Bussières E, Best K, & Boucher N. Impact of COVID-19 on people with physical disabilities: A rapid review. Disability Health Journal. 2021;14(1), 101014. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2020.101014.

15.Desjardins D & Freestone C. Canadian women continue to exit the labour force. RBC Economics; 2020 Nov. Available from: https://thoughtleadership.rbc.com/canadian-women-continue-to-exit-the-labour-force/

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