March 15, 2021Print | PDF
As a leading researcher in labour economics, Tammy Schirle has been a key resource to journalists and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic as we try to understand its unprecedented effects on our labour market. Schirle has also been consulted by the Prime Minister for her advice on emergency relief strategies.
We asked Schirle, an Economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, to reflect on the success of income support measures to date and why COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted young women.
In March 2020, you started being asked to comment on new government support programs in response to COVID-19. What do you remember about that time?
Tammy Schirle: “As a labour economist, I pay a lot of attention to our income support programs and how they interact with our markets. When everything turned upside down, that expertise had a lot more value. Very, very quickly, governments needed to roll out support so that people could stay home. I was pulled into a variety of conversations with working groups and the media to talk about what was going on in the labour market, how certain policies were going to work and where there would be gaps.”
What were your thoughts on the rollout of income support programs?
TS: “It was incredibly impressive. We've never seen governments move that quickly. Typically, if we wanted to build something like those emergency response benefits and we went through the usual channels – Parliament, the public service – it would probably take five to seven years. Yet programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit were built in weeks. Was everything perfect? Of course not. But overall I was really impressed with how quickly our public service moved into place and got things done.”
You have spoken about how the negative economic impacts of the pandemic disproportionately affect women. Why is that?
TS: “It quickly became clear that this was not going to be your typical recession. In a normal recession, we have focused efforts on manufacturing jobs and pouring money into construction, things that tend to get people back to work. But this time, it's not those industries that are hurting. It's the service sector, which mostly affects women, young people and low-wage workers. We continue to think about what we can offer these young women who have had to leave the service industry in terms of opportunities and training. And moving forward, maybe new careers and new industries that are better paying.”
What other gaps have you identified that needed to be addressed?
TS: “One of the big gaps that we identified right away was that many students would be looking for service sector work in April to fill their summers and none of that was going to be available. And then toward the end of summer, you could see that the pandemic was going to last longer than the initial emergency benefits were rolled out for. We needed to move into a next phase that was going to continue to support people.
“This is an ongoing process. We have seen a lot of money rolling out that isn't necessarily very well targeted, so it requires constant monitoring. One of the big issues moving forward is what's going to happen to people who have been without work for a full year. They're entering long-term joblessness and looking for work in a labour market that isn't functioning properly.”
How have you worked with the media to share your knowledge?
TS: “When speaking with the media, I take time to check the numbers and make sure that anything I'm saying can be easily backed up with really solid evidence and research. The other consideration, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, was making sure that the media was able to communicate what was happening in the labor market. The surveys that we do every month to gauge what's going on with jobs and unemployment are designed for normal times, so trying to interpret those numbers in the middle of a pandemic required really understanding where they come from.
“A big part of our effort in early April for that first jobs report was to prepare the media for how to think about those numbers. And from then onward, we keep tracking them every month. We open up the jobs report, dig through the data and try to figure out who is being affected most and who is being left out of programs.”
As the pandemic continues, what issues will you be paying attention to as a researcher?
TS: "In the next couple of years, I am interested to study if our experience working from home throughout the pandemic changes anything for working parents. Parents were having to negotiate that kind of flexibility in the past and there was always a wage penalty. Mostly for women, of course. I'm wondering now that everyone else has been doing it and people can see that you can actually work quite productively from your home whether or not that wage penalty will persist.
"We will also be considering to what extent working from home might actually be a bad thing, in the sense that if I can hire you to work from home, perhaps I can hire somebody in another country to work from home and do the same job."