Btch You THOUGHT: Instability, Precarious Work, and COVID-19
Precarious: not securely held or in position; dangerously likely to fall or collapse. No, we aren’t talking about your millennial relationship, we are talking about employment.
What else is precarious right now? Not hard to guess: our health, economies, and sanity. Shout out to COVID-19 for shutting down offices, moving some workers offline, and straight up disrupting everything we know and love.
While Canada is one of the lucky ones with social programmes to help support those feeling the weight of COVID-19 on their income and employment, we are still not the A-team.
Okay, but what exactly is precarious employment?
The International Labour Organization defines it as “lack(ing) decent jobs, security, protection and rights.” Most people think of informal work as precarious, but young professionals today know best that it can be subcontracting, temporary contracts, interim work, certain types of self-employment, and involuntary part-time work. AKA, every job offered to millennials ever. Precarious employment usually has no union rights, sick days, insurance, regular hours, or job security in general. Oh, and, they are usually paid less, because duh, capitalism.
Why should I care? Well, pretty much all Canadian policies and programs related to employment were created at a time when our Standard Employment Relationship (SER) was surrounding primarily men in trades and manufacturing that were earning a sole income for a family. So no, the government was DEFINITELY not considering your unpaid internship, six-month contract, or consulting gig when they were designing unemployment insurance and social safety nets.
Okay sure sure, but I repeat, why should I care? Depending on how precarious employment is defined, the number of Canadians considering themselves to not be in traditionally stable full-time jobs ranges from 22%, to 45%. On top of this, precarious employment does not pride itself on being gender equitable, with studies showing that over 60% of individuals claiming to be in precarious employment are women. Other groups who often are forced into precarious employment (through no other option) are racialized folks, new immigrants, youths, seniors, and those without a post-secondary education.
So, what happens when you add a pandemic into the mix?
Precarious work becomes even more precarious, and those at greatest risk of financial and social instability are impacted first and hardest. Your office closes, tells you to work from home, but does not offer you a laptop or phone to do so, because you are not a “permanent” employee. The store you work at heeds precautions, with no ability to pay you during the two weeks it chooses to shut down. You get symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and choose to self-isolate, then get fired for missing work (you have no sick or leave days because who needs those anyway?!).
Now let’s add the gender lens. Women are often primary caregivers, and with schools closing, Canadian women can be predicted to self-isolate or compromise their current employment to stay home and care for loved ones. Further, racialized women are found more predominantly in precarious employment than white women.
Last week, the Trudeau government decided to push forward with Employment Insurance (EI) for all those impacted by sickness and quarantine, while also waiving the one-week waiting period for pay once you apply. However, EI is only 55% of your insurable earnings, up to a maximum of $573 a week.
So, what happens when social distancing ends in a couple weeks? Well, 22%-45% of the population will have struggled with receiving income, making rent, paying bills, and affording preventative care, mostly due to the status of their employment and little-to-no social protections.
So remember: tip your Uber driver, be kind to your grocery store workers, donate to the food bank, isolate yourself if you notice COVID-19 symptoms, and when all this subsides: set fire to the system that couldn’t protect up to 45% of Canadians in mandatory social distancing and closures. *mic drop*