Good afternoon. I'm Ann Decter from the Canadian Women's Foundation, Canada's only national public foundation for women and girls and one of the 10 largest foundations in the world. Through three decades, our granting work has focused on moving women out of poverty and violence and into safety and confidence.
Thank you for the invitation to appear today on this urgent question—urgent because women in Canada have been impacted by the pandemic to an extent that threatens to roll back equality gains. Women's safety, livelihoods and well-being have all been put at risk, most severely for women from communities that are marginalized by systemic discrimination. The pandemic has shone a penetrating light on gender-based violence, women's economic security, care work and the central economic role of child care.
Economic losses have fallen heavily on women, and most dramatically on women living on low incomes who experience intersecting inequalities based on race, disability, education, colonization and migration and immigration status. A historic downturn in women's employment, compounded by uncertainty over the capacity of our fragile child care sector to fully reopen, is a potential perfect storm for women's economic security. Women in diverse and marginalized communities can be expected to have the greatest difficulty in emerging from this crisis.
The scale of women's job losses is enormous. At the end of May, 1.5 million women had lost their jobs and another 1.2 million had lost the majority of their work hours, impacting more than one quarter of all women workers. The lowest wage earners have been hit the hardest. Fifty-eight per cent of women earning $14 per hour or less were laid off or lost most of their work by April. Overall, women earning the lowest 10% of wages experienced job loss at 50 times the rate of the highest wage earners. This is the type of granular data revealed by the intersectional gender-based analysis that is needed to support decisions on next steps.
Mothers are experiencing disproportionate job loss. They account for 57% of parents who had lost their jobs or most of their hours by the end of May and for only 41% of employment gains. More than one quarter of mothers with children under 12 who were working in February were unemployed or working less than half-time by April's end. Mothers parenting on their own were more likely to lose work than those in two-parent families.
Women are leaving the labour market and increasing their care responsibilities at home. The number of women in core working years outside the labour market increased 34% from February to the end of April. That includes women who stopped looking for work due to soaring unemployment or to take up care responsibilities at home. This leaves women's economic security under threat.
Access to child care underpins mothers' access to the workforce, and without government intervention child care will be scarcer and more expensive. One out of three child care centres have not confirmed that they will reopen. Physical distancing requirements are reducing spaces. Personal protective equipment and sanitization will raise costs, increasing parent fees and putting child care financially out of reach for more families. Parents of all genders need child care to work, but for women, who still shoulder a disproportionate share of family care work, it is essential. Emergency closure of child care centres and schools placed a triple burden on mothers doing full-time jobs from home and managing both children and household tasks.
Care work has been central to pandemic response. Our primary and long-term care systems are staffed largely by women. More than one in three women workers are in high-risk jobs with greater exposure to COVID-19. Women make up more than two thirds of those who clean and disinfect buildings and almost 90% of personal support workers. After two decades of austerity in health care and community services, the most poorly paid workers—a highly racialized, women-majority workforce—form the first line of defence against catastrophic illness and economic depression. Canada's care economy is fractured, and women, largely racialized, black, migrant and undocumented women, are bearing the brunt.
Government withdrawal opened the door to the proliferation of for-profit chains in care work, which reduced quality of care, staff levels, job benefits and protections, with negative consequences for care recipients, the gendered racialized workforce and Canada's pandemic response.
Care work in Canada also has an entrenched reliance on highly skilled but low-paid migrant care workers who now fill positions in private homes and in health care facilities, yet face increasingly restricted chances of securing permanent residency and rights protections. Pandemic impacts on migrant care workers include dismissal by employers now working from home or laid off, 24-7 lockdown in employers' private homes and loss of immigration status due to government processing delays.
Stay-at-home orders increase the risk of domestic violence and decrease women's abilities to leave abusive homes for the safety of shelters—highlighting the importance of the violence prevention sector—while placing additional strain on already taxed anti-violence services. Closure of physical spaces and the shift to remote services created unique access barriers to sexual assault centres.
In the best of times, gender-based violence services are underfunded and oversubscribed. Demand for access to women's shelters consistently exceeds capacity. Significant gaps persist in shelter services for women with disabilities, deaf women, women in rural and remote areas and women in need of culture-specific services. Four out of five women's shelters across the country are accessed by first nation, Métis or Inuit women, yet only one in five can frequently provide culturally appropriate programs, and 70% of Inuit communities do not have access to a shelter.
With the rise of “Me Too”, sexual assault centres experienced significant increases in calls without matching increases in funding. As the pandemic arrived, sexual assault survivors, some at high risk of suicide, were stuck on a waiting list for counselling across Canada. One sexual assault centre executive described transitioning to remote work: “We had to invest in a phone system, as ours was a donation from 1980. We didn't have funds for PPE for staff and volunteers accompanying women to hospitals, police and doctors. ... As much as I'm grateful for the 25k, I must be honest with you: It's not enough. … We are running out of PPE, volunteers have begun to show signs of burnout, and we are averaging 60 to 80 crisis calls a day.”
As you're likely aware, the women's sector refers to non-profits and charities that provide women-specific services in order to advance women's equality through policy, advocacy and public engagement. That includes shelters for women, sexual assault centres and women's centres that provide a safety net to women and their families. These are essential to a healthy welfare state system and to achieving gender equality.
The pandemic lockdown exposed and exacerbated existing flaws in the women's sector funding model. The sector is funded partially and irregularly through an unpredictable combination of individual donations, corporate gifts and foundation and government grants. This is time-consuming and inefficient, requiring constant renewal and contact. Organizations constantly seek out, apply for and renew funding that is largely project-based and temporary. Reports from the women's sector indicate an impending future crisis.
Like the best of the pandemic emergency response from public health leaders, many of whom are women, recovery planning with women and gender equality in mind requires thorough analysis, clear evidence-supported outcome targets, methodical approaches to implementation and responsible leadership with vision and heart.
Should broad emergency measures need to be reimposed for another indefinite period, the Canadian Women's Foundation recommends the following actions, with a reminder that an inclusive gender-based analysis with an intersectional lens is essential to the design of all government recovery investments, short or long term: With regard to women's economic security, reinstate the Canada emergency response benefit throughout any economic shutdown; reinstate the Canada emergency wage supplement with a simpler administrative mechanism throughout any economic shutdown: broaden access to employment insurance so all women who pay in can access benefits; work with the provinces and territories to implement 10 paid sick days, as announced; ensure funding is in place to safely reopen the child care sector at pre-pandemic service levels and to continue to expand it until universal access is achieved.
As for women and care work, work with the provinces and territories to ensure—