Employers in Hamilton need to increase flexibility to help women back to work: panel

Women in Hamilton have left the workforce in droves since the start of the pandemic, especially Black, Indigenous and racialized women, younger women, women with disabilities, and low-income workers, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce’s recent Women out of Work study found. 

Those women are needed to help drive economic recovery, but many workplaces are going to have to make changes to get them there, said panelists in an online event hosted by the chamber this week. 

The panel featured several speakers, including Joana Fejzaj of Empowerment Squared; Maxine Carter from Mohawk College; Denise Christopherson, CEO of YWCA Hamilton; Andrea Peters with Goodwill; and Matthew Green, MP for Hamilton Centre. 

It followed the study’s release earlier this month, and hoped to use study results to discuss “ways in which Hamilton can move toward an equitable and fair COVID-19 recovery.”

The study found that 46 per cent of the 1600 women that took part in the study earlier this year reported negative job impacts such as losing their primary job or having their hours reduced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the study isolated responses from Indigenous women, that number was 53 per cent. Meanwhile, “white respondents were more likely to see an increase in their hours,” said researcher Katie Stiel. 

Denise Christopherson, CEO of YWCA Hamilton, says if a job posting doesn’t make it clear the role has flexibility, many women won’t apply. (Supplied by YWCA Hamilton)

“BIPOC respondents were twice as likely as white respondents to indicate they were struggling financially in Jan. 2021,” she added.

Randa, a newcomer to Canada who was uncomfortable including her last name for this story, was working at Tim Hortons when the pandemic hit, she told CBC Hamilton. Randa said it felt like each week, her hours were further reduced.

“That affected my stress a lot,” said Randa. “How can I pay my bills?” she asked.

“Oh my God, it was horrible. Sometimes I would cry at night, thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next.'”

Randa, who previously worked as a teacher in Syria, got help from the YWCA to apply for a new job as an educational assistant. But with the uncertainty that COVID-19 continues to bring, not all women are finding the working world hospitable to a return, particularly if they have children, panelists said Wednesday. 

Flexible schedules, transit options needed

Paid sick days, allowing job-sharing, and more flexible business schedules would go a long way to lure back women who are balancing work and children, as would providing transit options to get to work for businesses in harder-to-reach places, said Peters, who serves as Goodwill/The Amity Group’s employment services manager for Halton Region. 

“Gender and race have been shown to lessen the likelihood of moving from a low-wage position to a higher-wage position,” she said, adding, “women who dropped out of [work] to care for family members often struggle to return.” 

YWCA’s Christopherson says that these days, if a job posting doesn’t make it clear that the role has flexibility, many women simply won’t apply.

“You’ll have to seriously start thinking about the benefits and flexibility you have in place to attract and retain workers,” said Christopherson in a call with CBC Hamilton on Thursday. “If you’re not doing that, people will simply not apply for jobs. We’re seeing that in the restaurant industry. It’s struggling across the country to bring people back to work. [But those workers want] higher wages and more flexibility.”

Christopherson said the YWCA had to make big adjustments when the pandemic hit, since so many of its workers are women with children who were suddenly balancing work with childcare and online school. 

She says she spent time working with the leadership team to change expectations for “women who wanted to continue to work but had kids at home,” such as extending deadlines or allowing them to work different hours than they typically might. 

“We encouraged all of our leadership teams to be as flexible as possible to get the work done,” she said.

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