By the end of June, about 40 per cent of women-owned businesses were forced to lay off employees, and more than 30 per cent had to reduce staff hours. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of those who did lay off workers sent pink slips to 80 per cent of their staff. Women also account for almost 40 per cent of self-employed Canadians; many of them rely on contractors, not employees, to run their business. Both factors put the majority of government support programs out of their reach (something that was true even before the pandemic). On top of that, small and medium-sized enterprises with under twenty employees—the type of business women are more likely to own—suffered disproportionately more revenue loss than larger companies with over one hundred employees. More women business owners reported being unable to pay their rent or mortgage payments, and more women reported being denied payment deferrals. In other words, while many businesses and entrepreneurs buckled under the mass shutdowns, for women the economic story was gloomier and more complicated.
That’s largely because the crisis only heightened barriers women already face in the business world: a lack of access to capital, a bias against the sectors where they’re most represented, and unbalanced domestic responsibilities. In April, the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Dream Legacy Foundation teamed up to survey underrepresented founders and entrepreneurs about the impacts of the economic shutdown on their business, home life, and mental health. It defined underrepresented as “those outside the main entrepreneurship narrative”— i.e., anyone who wasn’t white, cisgender- male, or Canadian- born. The results are depressing. While data showed that only 22 per cent of small businesses in Canada expected a 10 to 20 per cent decrease in revenue at the time, a whopping 50 per cent of those surveyed reported the same. More than 60 per cent of women-owned businesses stated they had lost contracts, customers, or clients, compared to 34 per cent of all small businesses in Canada. More than half told of negative health impacts and roughly the same number said they’d taken on additional child care duties. When narrowed down to racialized respondents’ experiences, the already- dismal numbers worsened. A full 80 per cent of racialized founders of all genders reported lost contracts, customers, or clients. It’s perhaps no wonder that their mental health costs were similarly higher.
Related: Read an interview with Lauren McKeon about her new book here.
One Indigenous woman in B.C. shared her experience: “I am home trying to balance work and family life. My sales have dropped significantly and I am facing delays in the ship-ping of my supplies and my product. I am limited to pursue my growth plans as they involved travel to the U.S. I have had to defer several bills due to no revenue coming in from sales.” A Black businessowner in Montreal wrote of not receiving refunds for cancelled events, adding that all of her funding applications had been unceremoniously cancelled. A facilitator in St. John’s chillingly noted that nobody was inter-ested in training because they didn’t know if they would be around in a year. Others reported not being able to take meetings and important business calls because they were parenting their children. Many had lost revenue from long- term, almost- completed projects that were abruptly trashed.
Event and conference revenue vanished. One woman in Whitehorse summed up the strange reverse feeling of sixty- to- zero: “Within one week, we lost every single booked contract we had for the foreseeable future. Our business effectively came to a halt in the middle of what was, to date, the busiest March of our career.”
A recession is, in its own way, a contagion. From closed shops and beleaguered companies, the disease spreads, triggering mass job loss, missed bills, evictions. The economic consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown cascaded through many industries that heavily employ women: hospitality, service, retail, recreation, arts and entertainment, but also, perhaps surprisingly, health care and social services— making it the first recession in Canadian history that is service-driven. All told, the pandemic plummeted women’s participation in the labour force to 55 per cent, its lowest point in three decades. In the first two months alone, 1.5 million women lost their jobs, sparking the term “she-cession.” Women in the core working ages, between twenty-five and fifty-four, lost more than twice the number of jobs lost by men in the same age range. But if women’s losses were unprecedented, so too was their ability to fix it. “On both sides— on both the carnage as well as the pick-up-the-pieces side—women are for the first time leading economic responses through public policies and through market actions,” Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers, told CBC’s The Current in March. Meaning, women were driving the losses, but they were also, in many cases, driving the recovery.
Women could be forgiven, however, if it felt like they only saw evidence of the carnage. Before CERB was announced on March 25, and before the program began accepting applications on April 6, tens of thousands of Canadians who had already lost their jobs overloaded the country’s antiquated EI system. On one early Monday in March, people filed 71,000 claims, punching through the previous single-day record of 38,000 set during the 2008 recession. They broke the record again just a few days later, filing 87,000 claims. By the end of March, the government had 2.2 million EI claims on its virtual desk. People waited for hours and, more often, days to get through to Service Canada’s information line. One man reported making 1,700 phone calls before he got through, while others enlisted friends’ and partners’ phones to call from multiple numbers at once. To help with the overload, and in anticipation that CERB would trigger an avalanche on Employment and Social Development Canada, the government quickly recruited 1,500 volunteers from within to work the phone lines. In the end, about 7,000 people raised their hands to step outside their regular jobs and help answer calls. And still call times stretched like Guinness World taffy. Many people reported calling dozens of times before getting through, only to gratefully make it to the next step: listening to elevator music for, very possibly, their entire day.
By the end of September, at the program’s close, more than 8.8 million people had accessed CERB, totalling $80.62 billion in government relief. Many of them had stayed on CERB for months, holding tight to the lifeline. For plenty of women, and particularly mothers, the line frayed anyway— even if it didn’t snap. One 27-year-old single mother from Ontario who lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic shared that she was no longer able to afford medication for her rheumatoid arthritis. After taking care of rent, covering utilities, and paying for her baby’s needs, she had only $200 left every month to buy gas and food. She was forced to skip bills, and felt the pain settle in joints. “My baby has everything he needs and that’s what you got to do,” she said in May. “I’ll live on pasta as long as I have to.” Another mom, who lives in B.C. with her boyfriend and two children, said that, while CERB ensured the family’s survival, it was barely enough; under the program, and while keeping one of her jobs as a part-time server, she still brought in anywhere from $1,300 to $2,300 less each month. CERB didn’t quite cover her rent. Without her partner’s help, she would have been in a “scary situation”: unable to buy food or pay her bills. “Sadly,” she acknowledged, “I’m not the only one.”
Excerpted from Women of the Pandemicby Lauren McKeon. Copyright © 2021 Lauren McKeon. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.