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A Feminist Approach to Alberta's COVID-19 Response

Women in Alberta are suffering the triple blow of bearing the brunt of the governing United Conservative Party’s austerity agenda and the COVID-19 economic and public health crises.

An evidence-based COVID-19 response and recovery plan for Alberta should include feminist considerations.

The need to add a gender dimension to the Government of Alberta’s evolving pandemic response strategy is apparent when one considers the following four facts.

  1. Most of the jobs lost in Alberta in the COVID-19 recession are in sectors of the economy that predominantly employ women (details below).
  2. Most of the front-line health care, seniors care, education, and family and community service workers supporting and fighting for Albertans during the pandemic are women.
  3. Alberta has long had the largest gender income gap in Canada. Putting more money in the hands of women across the province to spend in their local communities could bolster Alberta’s economic stimulus strategy.
  4. Before the pandemic, women in Alberta were already working a “double day,” averaging 35 hours of unpaid work weekly, compared to 17 hours for Alberta men. COVID-19 has exacerbated this unequal gender dynamic because there is more care work needed to support elderly relatives not wanting to go to the hospital for medical care, more unpaid labour resulting from home-schooling for children who would normally be in school, and more social reproductive labour as families spend more time at home.

In this blog, I use a gender lens to analyze Alberta’s recent labour market statistics. I then examine the recent small increase in provincial public infrastructure spending by the UCP government as the province’s main economic stimulus strategy in the face of the COVID-19 recession. Finally, I make a dozen suggestions for how the UCP government can add a feminist approach to their COVID-19 response and recovery plans.

Alberta job losses in March and April, 2020

More than 129,000 Albertans lost their jobs in March. All of the private sector job losses were in the service sector, which mostly employs women.

Alberta’s goods sector, which largely employs men, actually gained jobs in March. Forestry, oil and gas added 8,700 jobs and the construction sector added 5,300 jobs.

About a third of all Alberta job losses in March (43,700 jobs) were in accommodation and food services. That means more than one in four Alberta hospitality workers lost their jobs in March.

The Government of Alberta contributed mightily to the March unemployment total by laying off 26,000 public education workers on March 28. About 16,000 mostly female educational assistants were included in the mass layoffs. Substitute teachers and bus drivers were also laid off.

In March, part-time positions, which are mostly worked by women, fell 17% or 73,600 jobs. Full-time jobs dropped 2.3% or 43,500 jobs.

The situation got even worse for Alberta workers in April, with an additional 243,000 job losses. That means about 10% of Alberta workers lost their jobs in April alone.

The job losses in April were experienced in every sector of Alberta’s economy. Though the job losses continued to be led by female-dominated sectors, with wholesale and retail trade down a further 49,800 jobs and accommodation and food services down a further 35,600 jobs.

But the Alberta goods sector also contracted in April, with job losses in construction (33,200), manufacturing (18,300), and forestry, mining, and oil and gas (11,700).

Alberta’s job losses in April were mostly full-time positions, but overall in the last two months Alberta’s part-time jobs are down 31% and full-time jobs are down 12%.

As time goes on it seems increasingly likely that the female-dominated service sector may be permanently changed and will have a lot of difficulty recovering to its former employment level because most service sector jobs involve interaction between workers and customers. This concerning possibility should be addressed by Alberta’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan.

Alberta’s small increase to public infrastructure spending is not enough

In response to the economic shock caused by COVID-19, the Alberta government’s rather weak economic stimulus strategy to date consists of doubling the capital maintenance and renewal budget from $937 million to $1.9 billion.

A bolder stimulus strategy is called for in this time of interconnected public health and economic crises. Such a stimulus strategy should include funding the construction of the “superlab” that the UCP scrapped in mid-2019.

But adding any new funding and job creation for public infrastructure is a major flip-flop from the UCP government’s previous stance on infrastructure spending as economic stimulus.

All the way back on February 27, 2020, Premier Kenney’s government introduced Budget 2020 for debate in the provincial legislature. The UCP government’s Budget 2020 declares that “[t]oo often, governments justify higher capital spending because they believe it will provide short-term fiscal stimulus” (page 47).

A couple weeks after the UCP made this ideological declaration against using public infrastructure spending as economic stimulus, Albertans found themselves in the midst of the COVID-19 economic shock and the depths of the economic and public health crises we’re facing began to become clearer.

In such trying times, even the UCP sees counter-cyclical infrastructure spending as a positive move. That is, when the economy is cycling into a recession it’s a good time to counter that trend with an injection of government spending.

By early April, Premier Kenney thought “now is the perfect time” to increase government infrastructure spending. Unfortunately, the Kenney government has not increased public infrastructure by much to date, focusing solely on capital maintenance and not on constructing new infrastructure like the superlab.

From a feminist political economy perspective, it’s a positive thing that the UCP has flip-flopped and come to see increased public infrastructure spending as a good move during difficult economic times. After all, Albertans rely on our public health care, education, and transportation infrastructure as part of our essential public services. That injection of government funds into the provincial economy, however small to date, and the mostly male construction jobs it creates are important parts of Alberta’s COVID-19 response.

But feminist political economy would also encourage us to add other elements to Alberta’s response and recovery plans. In short, both increased funding for public infrastructure and increased funding for Alberta’s mostly female front-line public sector workers are required in a fulsome pandemic response plan.

There are many other elements that might be included in a feminist approach to Alberta’s COVID-19 response and recovery plans. It is to this topic that I now turn.

Adding a feminist approach to Alberta’s COVID-19 response and recovery plans

The Government of Alberta’s COVID-19 response and recovery plans to date have not included a gender-based approach. Yet, both Alberta’s front-line response to the pandemic and the province’s employment statistics for March and April show that women workers have been both essential to Alberta’s response to a public health crisis and disproportionately affected by COVID-19’s shock to the provincial labour market. While not an exhaustive list, below are a dozen suggestions for how the UCP can add a feminist approach to its COVID-19 response and economic recovery plan.

The UCP government should stop exacerbating existing gender inequalities in the province through actions such as laying off 26,000 public education workers during a pandemic. That single decision impacted three groups of women significantly. First, it impacted 16,000 mostly female educational assistants. Second, it impacted teachers – the majority of whom are women – by raising their workload to unmanageable levels as they try to navigate a bunch of coded students while trying to distance-teach classes with 30 children in them. And third, the UCP government decision placed a further burden of care on mothers who now, in addition to all the unpaid care work they already do, have to provide specialized supports to their coded children (who require significantly more support than non-coded kids). Of course these three groups of women are not mutually exclusive. Imagine the additional burden on a female teacher or educational assistant with high-needs kids at home.

All Government of Alberta departments and ministries should be required to consider the gendered dimensions of their decisions, including their decisions on how to respond to COVID-19. The Government of Alberta should also provide transparent and frequent reporting on how different parts of the government are using critical gender analysis to improve their services to Albertans.

Furthermore, the UCP government should incorporate care analysis in the province’s COVID-19 response by considering which Albertans need additional care and support during this difficult time, who is or is not providing that care work, and if these Albertans are paid adequately or at all for their important care work.

Incorporating a care analysis into their COVID-19 response would also lead Alberta’s Health Minister Tyler Shandro to finally deliver on his promise to increase the wage of health care aides by $2 an hour.

The Alberta government should also immediately reverse course on attacking public health care workers and instead work to strengthen accessible, universal, public health care as an essential service that all Albertans rely on. This new direction should include strengthening Alberta’s public lab system by funding the construction of the “superlab” that the UCP scrapped in 2019.

Access to affordable child care is a significant barrier for many women to return to the workforce. The Government of Alberta should invest heavily in making child care more affordable across the province. The UCP should also consider increasing the Alberta Child Benefit.

The Alberta government should strengthen paid sick leave in the province to ensure no worker has to choose between a paycheque and staying safe (and keeping others safe).

Over 60% of Alberta’s minimum wage workers are women. These workers are doing jobs that are now recognized as essential to our economy. The Government of Alberta should ensure these workers earn a living wage for their labour by increasing the provincial minimum wage to $17 per hour. The UCP should also legislate annual increases that align with the annual rate of inflation.

Last but not least, the UCP government should consult with women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and migrant workers’ organizations to ensure our province is doing everything it can to support all Albertans.

 

Photo credit: Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash.

Ian Hussey

Ian Hussey is a research manager at Parkland Institute. He is also a steering committee member and the Alberta research manager for the SSHRCC-funded Corporate Mapping Project. Before joining Parkland Institute, Ian worked for several international development organizations, including as the co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Fair Trade Network. Ian holds BA Honours degrees in Sociology and in English from Acadia University, an MA in Sociology from the University of Victoria, and his PhD courses and exams at York University focused on the sociology of colonialism and on political economy. His writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, New Political Economy, Edmonton Journal, National Observer, and The Tyee.

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