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A lone receptionist at the Sheraton hotel in Montreal on Nov. 18, 2020.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Women in Canada are at risk of prolonged unemployment as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates structural changes to the job market, RBC Economics warned Thursday.

The health crisis has dealt uneven blows to the labour market – and often, to the greater detriment of women. There’s been a substantial increase in the number of women who are jobless for six-plus months, while many have dropped out of the labour force entirely.

At the same time, the pandemic is forcing many companies to adopt new technologies sooner than planned, while some consumer spending habits may have shifted permanently, the RBC report said. That could spell trouble for jobs at risk of automation, and in particular, for the women who staff the service industries most affected by health restrictions.

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“As we reopen, the economy is changing,” Dawn Desjardins, deputy chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada and one of the report’s authors, said in an interview. “We need all hands on deck … in trying to get people re-engaged” in the labour market.

Using data from Statistics Canada, RBC pointed to a handful of indicators where women are lagging, and where the recovery process could prove challenging.

For instance, employment for women earning less than $800 weekly was down nearly 30 per cent from February, 2020, while for men it fell 24 per cent. Women have also sustained roughly two-thirds of the job losses in the struggling hospitality sector.

As well, nearly 100,000 women aged 20-plus have dropped out of the labour force – meaning they aren’t working or searching for a job – while fewer than 10,000 men have done so. Young and racialized women, female immigrants and mothers are among those who have suffered outsized work disruptions.

“The longer these women are out of the labour force, the greater the risk of skills erosion, which could potentially hamper their ability to get rehired or to transition to different roles as the economy evolves,” the report said.

Ms. Desjardins and economist Carrie Freestone wrote that accessible and targeted training is needed to help displaced workers, and that digital skills are crucial.

Such efforts could be unveiled in the federal government’s spring budget. Ottawa has said it will spend up to $100-billion over three years in fiscal stimulus, to help with the recovery process. And in a mandate letter sent to Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers.”

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Much like RBC, the Bank of Canada has flagged concerns over structural changes to the job market. In a recent speech, Governor Tiff Macklem said automation helps companies become more productive and creates new work opportunities. But the pandemic has sped up the transformation, and that comes with collateral damage.

“Some of the jobs that have been lost during the pandemic will not return,” Mr. Macklem said. “Many low-wage jobs have a high potential of being automated. And some jobs that are disproportionally held by women and youth, such as retail salesperson and cashier, are also the kinds of jobs where the pandemic has accelerated structural change.”

The RBC report also called for “more options” in affordable child care. “But it’s no solution if [low-earning mothers] don’t have jobs to return to.”

Ultimately, Ms. Desjardins said Canada should be working toward women participating in the labour force at the same rates as men. It’s a gap that predates the pandemic, but if closed would result in a much larger and dynamic economy.

“The idea of women participating at the same level as men in the labour market, and what that can add to our economy – it just makes that pie bigger,” she said.

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