“Collectively, we can help ensure that the needs of vulnerable populations are understood and taken into consideration.”
In April 2020, The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) launched an initiative to collect views on how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting some of the most vulnerable workers in Canada’s communities. The objective was to share perspectives with policy makers at all levels of government and in all types of organizations on the needs of vulnerable populations.
A group of 27 CRIW associates from multiple disciplines and backgrounds got together in late May 2020. The group met in a virtual roundtable to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on vulnerable populations at work and share ideas about policies and practices that can be adopted to protect these populations. The discussions were centered around the following questions:
- How might various policy initiatives differentially affect diverse workers?
- What can be done to ensure the needs of diverse workers are considered when policy is being formulated?
Workers considered include newcomers to Canada, Indigenous individuals, individuals with disabilities, parents tasked with both working from home and educating their children, those in remote communities, those without access to the internet from home, those in precarious employment, etc.
For questions or comments, feel free to contact CRIW at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is an overview of the ideas discussed.
Long Term Issues Made Visible by the Pandemic
Lack of Diversity in Leadership
The earliest initiatives to assist individuals unable to work tended to target salaried and wage-earning workers. It was not until disparities and exclusions in the application of these programs (for example self-employed individuals and pregnant women) were brought to their attention that the programs were broadened in scope. If we had government and corporate leadership consisting of more members with a diverse set of backgrounds, ethnicity, and gender, among others, this could help in developing policies that better address the needs of different groups in the Canadian society. More diverse leaders would more easily be able to identify, and identify with, members of diverse groups and their needs.
- What measures can be taken to increase diversity among elected officials and leadership positions?
- How can we ensure that all levels of government reflect the make up of Canada’s population?
Pay Disparity and Inequity in Benefits
The response to the COVID-19 crisis that resulted in forced closure of non-essential businesses, brought a (temporary) shift in what is considered essential to keep society running. It also shed an unflattering light on pay disparity and benefits inequity among workers. Workers at long-term care facilities, grocery retailers and long-haul drivers were suddenly hailed as “heroes.” However, the hero-status was not reflected in either wages or work conditions. The crisis brought public attention to the precarious compensation and working conditions of many in Canada. It brought awareness to workers in long-term care facilities whose salary levels force them to work multiple jobs, workers with 12-16 hour workdays, or retail workers without paid sick leave who might have to choose between their health or paying the bills. It also raised questions about the dependence of Canada’s agriculture industry on temporary foreign workers.
- Who is bearing the brunt of neoliberalist policies with their emphasis on free markets, low taxes, cuts to social programs, and individualism?
- Are businesses profits subsidized through low wages?
- How can employees strengthen their position? Should governments introduce policies to strengthen unions?
- How do we, as a society, move forward in valuing workers’ contributions in the future in terms of pay and work conditions?
- Is it time to implement policies to ensure all members of society have access to a living wage?
Pandemic Effect on Different Groups
Governments showed their efforts for inclusive communications by making their messages available in English, French and Sign Language. The COVID-19 crisis accentuated the need to make critical information easy-to-understand, culturally sensitive and available in multiple languages. Furthermore, misinformation and disinformation could also pose safety threat.
Indigenous communities: Historically, Indigenous communities have been severely impacted by the transmission of diseases for which they had no resistance. During these outbreaks they received little support from the Canadian Government. In the past, many Indigenous communities sought to isolate themselves for protection from these illnesses. The onslaught of a new pandemic and actions like blockading access and imposing restrictions on border crossings triggered feelings of mistrust within some Indigenous communities, leery of government messages and restrictions due to a legacy of trauma around colonialism and historical pandemics.
Newcomers to Canada: What measures can be taken to minimize the language barriers for newcomers to Canada not yet versed in Canada’s official languages?
Canadians with cognitive disorders: Complex language and conflicting messaging could be an issue for individuals with cognitive disorders.
- How can governments improve communications with Indigenous peoples?
- How can the needs of Indigenous communities to manage communications and contact (both verbal and physical) with others be respected and supported through culturally appropriate policies?
- How do governments and the media manage language use to ensure life-saving messages are understood by all?
- During a crisis, how can support organizations continue to play a crucial role in narrowing communication gaps and helping individuals navigate the intricacies of society?
- How can support organizations be leveraged to help individuals identify reliable sources of information?
Isolation and Mental Health
The stay-at-home advisory, physical distancing recommendations and subsequent closure of non-essential businesses have also created a sense of isolation and stress. The following are just a few examples of groups that grappled with isolation and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parents and single parents: Parents found themselves under pressure to balance working from home, while caring for, and home-schooling, their children. This pressure was heightened for single parents, who due to physical distancing measures, had to shoulder responsibilities for their households alone.
Parents of children with disabilities: The shutting down of schools and access to special needs support, posed unique burdens for parents of children with disabilities who had to take on education and caregiving responsibilities for their children without support. Again, this was exacerbated for single parents.
Newcomers to Canada: Closures and physical distancing measures limited newcomers’ access to opportunities to socialize, make friends, network and support each other. These opportunities are particularly important for individuals who have no family support system in Canada.
Single adults: Little attention had been given to isolation of single adults. Restrictions affecting opportunities to meet new people and date, likely helped reinforce coupledom as a social norm. Older adults may feel isolated and experience difficulties in having their caregiving and socialization needs met.
- What measures should be in place to support parents of children with special needs in times of crisis?
- Should there be exceptions in place to support single parents and parents of children with special needs?
- What are meaningful ways how newcomers can still socialize, network, and support each other during a lockdown?
- How can we ensure that single adults of all ages are considered during a lockdown?
- How can people effectively access mental health resources?
By the end of April 2020, Canada’s Federal Government reported a 20-30 percent increase in gender-based violence and domestic violence in certain regions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The advisory to stay at home could have made it more difficult for individuals experiencing violence to leave the house and/or get help.
- Should governments communicate to employers their responsibilities regarding knowledge of domestic violence?
- Should companies train their supervisors to identify vulnerable workers and connect them to support in times of crisis?
- How can governments and service providers effectively communicate to victims and employers about access to domestic violence relief or mental health support?
Working from Home
The physical distancing advisory, as well as closing of non-essential businesses, has prompted employers in certain industries to continue operations with employees working from home.
Assumptions of access to technology: Beyond access to computers, and other devices, optimal conditions for working from home also assumes the availability of internet access with enough bandwidth to support the entire household to work/learn at home, which might not be the case.
Privacy and blurring the lines of personal and work life: Video conferencing, to attend work meetings that would have been held at the office, opened home lives to colleagues. Less affluent workers could feel self-conscious about the lack of privacy and displaying their home. The absence of “office” attire also began to create a shift in aspects that could traditionally be deemed as expressions of professionalism, blurring the lines between work and personal life.
Caring for children while working: Balancing work, caring for children and home schooling also poses a challenge for working parents.
Impact on newcomer workplace integration: New hires that are new to Canada often rely on contact with others at work to ask questions and understand the workplace. Working from home could hinder the process of integration.
- What policies can governments put in place to improve access to broadband internet?
- How can employers support their employees in integrating work and life during times of crisis?
- What policies can employers implement to protect workers’ privacy? How can employers set the tone for transitions in expressions of professionalism?
- How can employers facilitate continued connection between newly hired newcomers and other staff?
The remote locations of some Indigenous communities make access to healthcare a challenge. Moreover, crowded housing conditions makes adhering to recommendations for self-isolation difficult. Newcomers to Canada are another group grappling with limited housing options. Lack of affordable housing leading to overcrowding, made the stay-at-home time during COVID-19, more challenging. Moreover, lack of access to greenspace in low-income communities was also a challenge.
- What can accelerate the remediation of lack of housing for Indigenous communities?
- What can governments do to increase affordable housing?
International students were another group impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. When traditional sources of emotional and financial support were drastically altered, many international students were left in highly precarious situations. The crisis also resulted in fewer opportunities for co-ops and paid internships. Also, recently graduated international students, have a limited time to apply for permanent residence, which could be impacted by delays in the processing of paperwork.
- What policies can be implemented to help international students from an equity point of view?
Mitigating Risks for Low-wage Earners
To keep the rest of the population safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been largely low-wage employees having to work outside the home, risking contacting the virus to work and provide essential services. There had been complaints about lack of protective gear, but also complaints from workers, such as long-haul drivers, about exclusionary practices to protect the safety of others, like no access to washrooms or food services. In contrast, workers in sectors such as tech, management services and finance, typically with higher education and income, were able to work from home and lessen their risk to exposure.
- What policies can be implemented to protect the health of employees that have no choice, but to leave their home to provide “essential” services?
- How can workers be financially protected for refusing to work in unsafe conditions?
- How can the government enforce those policies?
- Should workers be compensated for risk exposure?
Moving Beyond COVID-19
Disparity of Impact Based on Gender
The COVID-19 crisis also shined a light on the extra responsibilities many women face.
Women doing the bulk of unpaid work: With many employees working from home, women often took on disproportionate amounts of unpaid labour at home, potentially managing childcare and additional unpaid labour while also working for pay. It seemed there is an implicit assumption that, among women with male partners, it is the women (who are generally paid less than their male partners) who, if needed, will step back from their work to address care needs at home.
- As a society, how can we allocate our wealth to reflect the value of caring for and raising children in terms of policy?
- Can governments introduce policies that expand the definition of work (not just paid work)?
- What kind of (parental) leave policies can the government put in place to compensate workers that are caring for children, elderly or other dependents?
Some industries affecting mostly women workers: Disparity in impact also became apparent in fields predominantly occupied by women. For example, positions in the not-for-profit sector, heavily reliant on philanthropy and fundraising, whose revenue streams have been negatively impacted due the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Therefore, workers in the not-for-profit sector (mostly women) likely struggled more than workers in other sectors. Similarly, women provide the bulk of care in long-term and acute care settings. During the pandemic, these workers were exposed to much greater personal risks than other workers.
- How can the government support and engage the not-for-profit sector during times of economic downturn?
- How can the contributions of support workers be appropriately recognized, valued, and remunerated going forward?
Caring for Children
Lack of available childcare hindered some parents from working or going back to work.
Childcare for working parents: The gradual opening of the economy meant more workers having to return to the workplace, however with schools still closed and childcare access limited to certain workers considered “essential,” this posed another limitation for working parents. This childcare challenge is worsened for newcomers to Canada who might lack a support network to assist with childcare.
- What measures can the government introduce to ease challenges for returning to work?
Moving forward, we believe that these are some of the many important questions needing to be addressed by governments, organizations, and society generally as we work to create a world in which the needs of vulnerable populations of workers are considered in every policy decision made.
For questions or comments, feel free to contact CRIW at email@example.com.
For more information on CRIW’s research initiatives and knowledge-sharing efforts around COVID-19, please visit The Impact of the COVID-19 Response on Workplace Inclusion.