The Effect of COVID-19 on Alberta’s Labour Market: The Parents are not all right!

I have a new paper out today, co-authored with John Baker (Waterloo) and Kourtney Koebel (Toronto), two emerging scholars to watch. The paper looks at whether there were any labour market disparities created by COVID-19, and if so, for whom, and at what point in the pandemic.

What prompted this work? Well, the ruling United Conservative Party has argued that since women have recovered as well as men following the first wave of the pandemic a gender-focused plan is unwarranted. There was a heated debate in the second sitting of the fall 2020 Alberta legislature between the Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism, and Status of Women—Leela Aheer—and opposition member Rakhi Pancholi and the UCP continue to double down on an economic recovery plan that has been labelled a bro-covery plan (H/T Lise Gotell).

While this was going on, I like many parents of young kids, was currently isolating at home and supervising online school for an 8-year old while attempting to teach a course, engage with my research, do my administrative duties, and all the public engagement that I do. I was (and honestly still am) burned out and was facing impossible tradeoffs with impossible expectations. I wanted to give up, throw in the towel, take a leave of absence from work, and several of my professional mum friends did just that.

What I didn’t see in this discussion about the labour market in Alberta was the impact on parents. To me, looking all around me, I had to wonder why was no one looking at parental status. And so I reached out to some colleagues to see who could help me with my query. And that search led to teaming up with John and Kourtney to conduct this research.

We grabbed the Labour Force Survey data and started our work and lo and behold what I was living and seeing all around me was there in the data. While the gender differential we saw in the first wave indeed did not carry forward into subsequent waves, the parental differential was there, it was large, and it was ongoing. The main text of the paper I linked to above uses data up to December 2020, but if you scroll to the end we also have an addendum with data up to May 2021. Why? well we finished the paper in February, it went into peer review, we did a revise and resubmit, and the paper was accepted in May 2021 and published today. But since there was some interest last week in the data from the May 2021 release of the LFS, we did a quick update. I’ll take about those results here.

But first, the methodology! For labour market effects we looked at employment, full/part-time status, hours worked, and labour market participation. We use a difference-in-difference (DiD) framework for our results. This way we can focus solely on the total pandemic effect and not any economic differences that exist without the pandemic. Let me explain because it is important. For each group, we compare labour force statistics from February 2020 to each post COVID-19 month and to account for normal seasonal fluctuations we use data from 2019 to net out those. Eg. for March 2020 we take our labour statistic of interest, take the difference between it and February 2020, we also take the difference between March 2019 and February 2019, and then take the difference of these two differences (so really a difference-in-difference-in-difference).

In all figures below, we report trends for employment, but similar trends appear for labour force particiption and hours worked. The black squares represent the difference in employment between the included subgroups, while the light grey diamonds and circles indicate the group specific estimate. The vertical bars denote the 95 per cent confidence intervals computed using robust standard errors.

First, using proper statistical techniques, the gender impact of the first wave was not repeated in the second wave and is also not present in the third wave.

Second, the gap between parents of children under 13 and those without widens in fall 2020 and the gap becomes more severe in the third wave.

Third, while the second wave hit parents, regardless of gender, very hard, the third wave saw large emerging disparities not only between mother’s of young children compared to mothers without, but also between mothers and fathers of young children. The employment gains of fathers has stagnated, while mother’s employment has been on a downward trend since March 2021.

This is the graph for women.

This the graph for men.

All of these differences are magnified if we focus on parents whose youngest child is under 6.

These results reinforce the integration of the labour market and the economy, and vital role that access to high-quality, favorable, education, particularly early learning education, and child care plays in economic resiliency. It is high time that Alberta prioritizes Early Learning Education as an economic strategy for both recovery from the pandemic and the long-term resiliency of its economy. From this perspective, Alberta should celebrate and embrace the recent federal commitment to a Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care plan.