If work-from-home (WFH) arrangements become more prevalent in the post-COVID world, they must be a tool to improve equity, not a hindrance.
Ottawa (17 June 2020) — The COVID-19 pandemic response prompted many Canadian workers to begin working from home — in some cases, literally overnight.
New data on who can and can’t work from home reveal interesting patterns and inequities within Canada’s workforce.
Spike in remote work during the pandemic
Between February and April, the number of Canadians doing most of their job, or all of their job, from home nearly tripled. According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey for April 2020, a total of 5 million people were working from home.
It is important to point out that many jobs are not suited to working-from-home arrangements, or such arrangements may not be possible. Here we might think of grocery store workers, personal support workers, and early childhood educators.
Statistics Canada has estimated that under so-called normal circumstances, 4 in 10 workers can realistically do their jobs from home.
Who is able to work from home?
In a recent report, economist Jim Stanford notes that “the capacity to work from home is distributed very unevenly throughout the labour market.” His analysis shows that the jobs that can easily adapt to WFH are disproportionately those of managers and professionals who work in office environments.
It is true that there are lower-paid and more precarious jobs that can adapt to WFH, too. But the majority of workers who can work remotely earn higher wages and enjoy more benefits and protections. These workers have also been less likely to experience layoffs or have their hours reduced during the pandemic, the report shows.
Potential to reinforce inequality
In turn, workers who cannot do their jobs from home are more vulnerable. These workers generally earn less income and have lower levels of education, according to research released this week by Statistics Canada. It means that these workers are less economically secure while also at greater risk of coming into contact with COVID-19.
The pandemic threatens to widen the gap between workers. According to the report authors, “the risk of experiencing a work interruption during the pandemic might fall disproportionately on financially vulnerable families. If so, these work interruptions will likely increase family earnings inequality, at least during the pandemic and economic recovery.”
Another element of inequality exposed by the pandemic is what’s known as the digital divide. People living with low and moderate incomes, and those in rural or remote areas, may not have access to the equipment or internet connection needed to work remotely. This issue, and the responsibility of employers, must be part of the WFH conversation.
A step forward for gender equity, or backwards?
What is somewhat less clear are the gendered impacts of WFH.
On the one hand, the recent Statistics Canada data show that women are more likely than men to work from home. This means that they would have been somewhat insulated from job or income loss due to the pandemic.
But we also know that women workers were disproportionately impacted by pandemic-related unemployment and loss of hours (CCPA). In a number of sectors, including health care and social assistance, educational services, accommodation and food services, and office support, women account for the majority of job or income losses. In May, as restrictions lifted in many parts of the country, men saw a greater rebound in employment than women, according to the Labour Force Survey.
It is also crucial to recognize unpaid care work, of which women still perform the disproportionate share. It has been suggested that a transition to more WFH could improve women’s labour force participation or encourage a more equal balancing of caregiving responsibilities between men and women.
Notably, though, there are also concerns that WFH blurs the boundary between work life and home life, as noted by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. As a result, WFH might make balancing paid work and unpaid caregiving demands even more difficult for many women workers.
Despite these unequal impacts of WFH, it also holds potential to significantly improve accessibility for people with disabilities. A Government of Canada study on flexible work arrangements found that they enable more workers with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental health issues to participate in the workforce.
People with disabilities have long struggled for the necessary measures to ensure work and workplaces are accessible. This may include the possibility to work from home on a full-time or as-needed basis. Many expressed frustration when employers suddenly permitted their employees to WFH due to the pandemic, while people with disabilities had been denied their WFH requests in the past, or had been made to jump through hoops to access accommodations.
To ensure that people with disabilities aren't further excluded or harmed in WFH arrangements, it will be crucial to apply a disability lens, advocates argue. The transition to WFH must not be used by employers to skirt their responsibilities to make workplaces accessible. The same is true for other forms of equity.
If WFH arrangements become more prevalent in the post-COVID world, they must be a tool to improve equity and accessibility, not a hindrance.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE