Canada’s labour force has recovered. That doesn’t mean working moms have

It’s tempting to look at the job market in Canada right now and claim victory for everyone, including working moms.

Unemployment is at a record low, the proportion of women in their prime working years participating in the labour force is higher than ever before, and even Indigenous women off reserve are making notable gains.

There’s no doubt employees and employers alike have shown remarkable resilience after the deepest job losses in Canadian history.

But to claim victory would be to ignore the lesson driven home by the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that is poised to walk back abortion rights in that country, and is spooking us here in Canada.

Backsliding is a real risk when it comes to women’s progress, and the trends beneath the job-market headlines show us why.

“There’s a self-congratulatory consensus that since labour force numbers have recovered, Canadians have as well,” says Leah Nord, the senior director of workforce strategies and inclusive growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “As we head into Mother’s Day amid Mental Health week, try asking working women, particularly working mothers, if they are feeling good and doing OK.

“They are very far from OK.”

The fear was that women would never recover from the pandemic recession. When COVID-19 prompted governments to tell most of us to work at home and shut down public-facing services, women took a huge hit. Low-wage women and racialized women took an extra-huge hit. And working parents reeled with home schooling, the on-again-off-again virtual classes, and trying to hold down jobs at the same time. Women’s participation in the workforce seriously eroded as they tried to juggle illness, kids, working from home and an unpredictable economy.

Now, after a roller coaster of massive job losses followed by massive gains and back again, the workforce seems to be behaving more like normal, essentially unchanged in April compared to March.

That signal of stability glosses over a lot.

Almost 10 per cent of the workforce has been calling in sick as COVID-19’s Omicron variant continues to rip through our offices — a full two percentage points more than the pre-pandemic rate of absenteeism, Statistics Canada says.

And who takes care of those sick people? Women, for the most part. StatCan labour data shows men and women are missing approximately the same amount of work due to illness — COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate — but women are absent far more often to take care of family members. That was the case pre-pandemic but is especially the case now.

In April, StatCan data shows 2.6 per cent of male employees missed work to take care of others, while 6.6 per cent of female employees were off for caregiving reasons.

Another sign of trouble for mothers is their lack of participation in the workforce. While female participation has more than recovered, that’s not the case for mothers in particular.

Carrie Freestone, an economist with Royal Bank, has crunched some Statistics Canada data with mothers in mind. She finds that in April, women with children under 13 years old were still facing a 1.4 per cent decline in employment compared to pre-pandemic days. That’s compared to a 7.2 per cent increase in employment for women without children and 8.1 per cent for men without kids.

And when Freestone looked at the size of the labour force itself, she found it was four per cent smaller for mothers of children under 13. But it had grown by six per cent for women with no kids.

Wages for mothers were up marginally in April, but fathers and women without children are seeing their wages climb far faster. No one is keeping up with inflation, but mothers are even further behind.

“So we are certainly seeing women without children lagging in their recovery,” Freestone says. “But perhaps they will not make a full recovery.”

So much for getting back to life as usual.

But even if we eventually reverse course for mothers and avoid a backslide, are we really OK with a return to the pre-pandemic days? Those days when women were paid less and saw fewer promotions to the executive ranks despite stellar credentials?

In a recent paper, Freestone reminds us that women without children make 93 cents for every dollar made by men without children. When those women have children, the disparity grows. Mothers with kids under six are making 87 cents on the dollar, and they don’t catch up as the kids get older. They fall further behind, with the gap growing to 82 cents.

Now, we risk seeing the so-called baby penalty compounded by a pandemic penalty, which just makes no sense for the moms, their workplaces, their employers or the economy writ large as it deals with labour shortages.

There’s still a lot we don’t thoroughly understand about how the pandemic has affected mothers in the workforce, points out Nord. We don’t know how many mothers have dropped out on a long-term basis to care for others, nor do we fully understand the productivity impact for working mothers of having to deal with the pandemic, home schooling and dizzying uncertainty all at once.

We do know, however, that the recovery is bypassing some very important people.

“Working mothers are ringing the alarm bells about their well-being,” Nord says.

So by all means, shower them with flowers and make them breakfast in bed. But also, let’s crush COVID-19, make caregiving easier, and pay women what they deserve — babies or no babies.

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