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Message from Kathryn Oviatt, Chief of the Commission and Tribunals, Alberta Human Rights Commission

(March 21, 2022)

Lessons from COVID-19: The Impact of Caregiving during a Pandemic

March 2022 marks the two-year anniversary of COVID-related health restrictions in Alberta. It is also the month in which we recognize International Women's Day. The pandemic affected every single one of us, but not equally. For marginalized groups, the impacts were more significant. This was the case for women, in part because women provide higher rates of unpaid caregiving.

The University of Alberta conducted a survey of 604 family caregivers; 85 per cent of these caregivers identified as women. When schools shut down, or mandated quarantine applied to children in daycare, there were extremely limited childcare options for families. These shutdowns also meant increased homeschooling duties for parents. Many families also made the difficult decision to pull an elderly loved one from long-term care and cared for them at home.

Many caregivers had to juggle these additional caregiving burdens with employment. This often resulte​d in negative impacts on their health and financial circumstances. When gender intersected with other protected grounds, like family status, race, age, or disability, the damaging impacts on women were more severe. RBC Economics observed in March 2021:

  • ​Ten times more women than men left the Canadian workforce between January 2020 and February 2021.
  • The pandemic hit lower-income women harder.
  • Younger women were most affected by job losses.
  • Mothers faced higher job losses than women without children.
  • Visible minority women struggled with employment gaps.
  • Immigrant women with children 12 and under experienced more than double the decline in employment compared to Canadian-born mothers.
Statistics Canada noted that employees with jobs that could be done from home generally fared better during the pandemic. We also learned through necessity that more work can be done flexibly, including working from home, than we had thought before the pandemic forced us to pivot.
The Alberta Court of Appeal recently clarified the law surrounding accommodating family status, and the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal. The law in Alberta is now clear; there is no additional obligation on the individual to first self-accommodate. We apply the test for prima facie discrimination to family status cases in the same way as for every other protected ground.​
If there is a legitimate family status accommodation request, the law imposes on employers and other organizations a duty to reasonably accommodate to the point of undue hardship. The law recognizes that some hardship in accommodation is acceptable. It is only at the point of "undue" hardship, a high threshold, where an employer will not have to take additional steps to accommodate the individual.
In addition to the minimum legal requirements in the duty to accommodate, we also have a moral obligation to ensure that all Albertans are supported with equitable policies and programs. The Government of Alberta and many other employers are returning employees to office work with the option of a hybrid model of both work from home and in-person work. This is a good start as we work flexibly and creatively to build healthy workplaces that work for everyone.
Poet, author, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou​ is attributed with saying, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." The pandemic taught us, first, that we can be more flexible with work than we realized before and, second, that caregivers need more support to balance their home obligations with their employment duties. So now, we know better. Let's do better.

Our vision is a vibrant and inclusive Alberta where the rich diversity of people is celebrated and respected, and where everyone has the opportunity to fully participate in society, free from discrimination.