Workers have been deeply affected by measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. But the impact has been felt unevenly and in different ways than in recent recessions. In April 2020, more than 30 per cent of Canadian workers had been laid off or had their hours reduced. Immediate employment impacts were most severe in female dominated industries such as food services, tourism, culture, recreation and retail. Schools and child care centres closed, challenging education workers and parents alike. As a result, more women than men were laid off or had to cut down on paid hours of work to care for loved ones.

This is in stark contrast to past economic recessions. Often, economic downturns are first felt in male dominated industries like manufacturing or natural resources. Women’s labour force participation sometimes even goes up during a recession, as women seek more hours to make up for the lost income from a male family member who has been laid off.

This time, women’s labour force participation has plummeted to levels not seen in 30 years. And it could get even worse. Some child care centres have been permanently closed, and the cost of delivery has increased, making child care harder to find and even more expensive than it was before the pandemic. Statistics Canada found that more than one-third of parents who have been working from home are concerned that child care challenges will limit their ability to keep working. It’s worse for women with a child younger than six, 56 per cent of whom share this concern. Parents faced with significant uncertainty about the safety of return to school plans may decide to keep children home, forcing more women out of the labour market.

Governments usually respond to recessions by investing in building physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, to create employment for blue-collar workers who have lost their jobs. Creating jobs by building infrastructure our communities need gives us a good return on our public stimulus dollars. The investment helps support other economic activities too, as roads make it easier for businesses to move supplies or reach their customers.

But this recession is different, and it has impacted workers, families, and their communities differently. This time, the outdated model of ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects shouldn’t be our priority. Instead, investment in the care economy, including education and child care, will give us the biggest bang for our buck.

A vibrant, accessible care sector ensures everyone can participate in the workforce, which will be essential throughout the economic recovery. Hiring more workers into secure, well-paid jobs in child care centres, schools, home care, and long-term care will make it easier to follow social distancing protocols and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in public care settings. Knowing that their loved ones will be safe allows parents and other unpaid family caregivers to return to their usual jobs, while also ensuring that paid caregivers have safer workplaces.

Care work is an important foundation for a lot of the economy, just as roads and bridges are. Provinces across Canada were underinvesting in care work before the pandemic. Now we need to make appropriate investments in social services, or we will see devastating consequences for our economy and for a generation of women.