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Nova Scotia’s war on women

Photo Simon de Vet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – I hear the construction workers’ jackhammers and power saws droning up the street. Two eight-storey apartment buildings are going up in Schmidtville, my Halifax neighbourhood. Another multi-storey condo is going up a block away. When a neighbour complained of construction noise on a holiday weekend, the developer curtly dismissed her. He bragged that he was giving men jobs, so their families could eat during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Big of him – and big of the Nova Scotia government:  thanks to Stephen McNeil, construction has not slowed one iota since the pandemic was declared. No one worries about men on construction sites social-distancing, hand-sanitizing or wearing masks. Thousands of men kept their construction jobs, as did women – but they represent a mere 4% of the construction trade workforce. 

Overall, in these Covid-19 times, men kept working in construction, trucking, factory production, warehousing and more, but women – whose jobs are overwhelmingly in the service, hospitality and retail sectors, did not.  

April’s statistics revealed that 80% of job losses due to Covid-19 were women, since the service sector has been all but shuttered during the crisis. Many of the jobs they lost are permanent. If some of the service jobs re-open, the laid-off women will be competing for those jobs with all the unemployed women and men in the “reserve army of labour”. 

According to Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s (CCPA) senior economist David Macdonald, “The breakdown by hourly wage is the most shocking of all. Half of all those earning $14 an hour or less have been laid off or have lost all their hours. This compares to only one per cent of jobs lost or hours cut among the highest earning 10 per cent of workers who make more than $48 an hour.”

Since February, more than half of the people who earned less than $16 an hour lost their jobs or had the majority of their hours cut.  But only 1% of people who earned more than $48 per hour lost their jobs, or had their hours cut. The truth is, the less you make, the less chance you have to keep your job.

In 2018, more than 125,000 people in Nova Scotia (one worker in five) earned less than $15.00 per hour.  Fifty percent of them were the family breadwinner, and 56% of breadwinners were women. 

In the 2008 recession, it was predominantly men who lost their jobs. Now it’s women’s turn. Nearly 300,000 women in Canada aged 25-54 lost their jobs in March alone. In April, the unemployment rate overall was 13%. The last time unemployment was this high was in 1982. Prior to that, we’d have to jump back to 1936 – to the middle of the Great Depression — to see unemployment this high. As the CCPA’s David Macdonald explains, “Put another way, all jobs created since October 2005, 15 years ago, have been lost by April 2020.” 

The Nova Scotia government, and governments in all provinces, want to “open the economy” — albeit carefully. After two months of lockdown, the Nova Scotia government is encouraging employers to manage a slow return to work. This means employers must ensure proper distancing between employees, regular sanitization of all surfaces and equipment, and monitoring workers’ health. Women often work in clerical and admin support jobs. It’s almost impossible for them to distance when they have to ride elevators many times a day, and share equipment such as photocopiers, stationery, phones, files, computers and printers.  

In the Covid-19 crisis, women have had to bear the burden in two ways.  First, the vast majority of the thousands of victims have been residents of long-term care homes. It’s likely the victims were mainly women, since they form the overwhelming majority of residents in long-term care. This is because, on average, women live 5 years longer than men. 53 residents have died at Northwood a public long-term care facility in Halifax. That figure accounts for 90% of Covid deaths in Nova Scotia.  

Due to “privacy concerns” there has not been any breakdown of who has died at Northwood. In reality, Northwood’s CEO and Nova Scotia’s premier are keeping a tight lid on the whole situation there. According to one news source, the facility reported 15 active cases of the virus among residents and four active cases among employees. Overall, Northwood has seen 342 cases of COVID-19 involving 244 residents and 98 employees. All Premier McNeil offers is the chance for us all to be – in his words –“part of a discussion” about Covid-19 at Northwood. He categorically rejects the demand for a public inquiry.  

A second burden women face is the dangers inherent in their work as carers. For example, of the 400 plus people employed at Northwood, the overwhelming majority are women:  female nurses, personal care workers, food service staff, and cleaners. Many of the women workers are African-Nova Scotian, others are racialized or new Canadians. These women– who earn $17 to $21 an hour — worked for weeks without proper PPE (personal protective equipment) and spent long shifts helping and comforting ill patients. For months the deaths from Covid kept mounting at Northwood. But neither the Premier nor the Chief Medical Officer of Health seems to be able to adequately address the situation – or make it safer for the care staff, who must return to their families after their shifts. 

In early May, a grudging Premier McNeil announced a “pandemic bonus” for long-term care workers. They will get an extra $2,000 (basically a bonus of $500 a month) if they worked steadily in long-term care from March to July. 

While the bonus covers nursing home workers, it does not cover those who work as essential staff in residential care (small options homes) in the province. This is a situation that angered Louise Riley. Riley, who is the head of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ (CUPE’s) Long-Term Care Committee noted, 

“We would like to see … a living wage every day … If you can do it in a pandemic you should be able to do it all the time.  Make it a meaningful change.” 

The federal government contributed 85% of the bonus funds, the rest came from the province.   Other provinces such as Ontario and Quebec offered extra pay to their frontline workers nearly three weeks before Nova Scotia’s premier made the announcement. 

A bonus is what Sobeys has offered their employees courtesy of the company’s  “Hero Pay Program”. Rather than increasing the hourly rate to accurately reflect workers’ overtime and extended hours—Sobey’s has offered its cashiers, shelf-stockers and in-store cleaners $50 extra a week as a bonus for each week they work during the Covid crisis. 

Atlantic Superstores and Shoppers Drug Mart are raising employees’ pay by $2.00 an hour — which is a 14% wage hike for most grocery and drug store workers.  

On mainland Nova Scotia, Sobeys, Superstore and Shoppers are not unionized, but they are in Cape Breton. One wonders what the unions think of the raise; most would give their eyeteeth to have been able to negotiate a 14% raise at any time. 

However even with the raise in pay, very few grocery store workers come close to earning a Living Wage – which in Halifax is $19.17 an hour. 

If and when women return to work, how can they do so without adequate provision for childcare for their own children. Many women are single parents. According to Statistics Canada, 81% of single parent households are headed by women.  And 78% of them work full-time. They need childcare.  

With daycare centres and schools remaining closed, and municipalities cancelling free or cheap summer camps in July and August, what is a mother to do? Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan said, “You’re not going to have a recovery without childcare, it’s that simple.” 

Yalnizyan echoes what the UN has said, “The pandemic was “deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems, which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.

“As women take on greater care demands at home, their jobs will also be disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs. Such impacts risk rolling back the already fragile gains made in female labor force participation, limiting women’s ability to support themselves and their families, especially for female-headed households.” The Impact of COVID-19 on Women

Recent news revealed the childcare dilemma for a veterinarian. No doubt, she’s a high income earner, but daycare for her three year old has jumped from $800 a month at a daycare centre (now closed), to more than $2200 a month* because she has to hire a personal babysitter. No one working for $20 an hour can afford that. Again, Nova Scotia is the only province in which the government did not organize or provide childcare for essential service workers during the pandemic. 

If daycare centres do open in the second week of June, as the Premier suggests, then daycare workers – 90%  of whom are women who normally earn as little as $14-20 an hour — will be considered essential workers. They are essential workers who do not have sick benefits, or the ability to self-isolate if they come in contact with a child or their parent who has Covid. Who will care for the caregivers’ health, and the health of their families? In the words of one childcare worker, “I fear that we’re going to make the same mistake that was made in nursing homes, and it’s going to lead to the spread of infections, then we have to shut down again…” 

We know that, overall across Canada, women earn 87 cents for every dollar men earn. With reduced hours and precarious jobs, women earn less so they tend to be renters. It is true that Nova Scotia forbids residential evictions right now during the crisis, but only if a tenant’s refusal to pay rent is caused by job loss due to Covid-19.  But Nova Scotia does not help with the rent, unlike British Columbia which provides its residents with rent subsidies of up to $500 a month during this time. So at the end of the pandemic, many women will owe literally thousands of dollars in rent and will have to figure out a way to pay it back. 

* $2200 for a babysitter is not so much to pay.  Nova Scotia’s minimum wage is $12.55 an hour. If a babysitter earns $13.00 an hour, for an eight hour day, for 21 days a month (excludes weekends), that works out to just under $2200.00. 

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, a Halifax-based organization which fights bullying, racism and discrimination in the workplace. You can reach her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

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