You can’t re-open an economy without workers

Yesterday, the Saskatchewan government revealed its plan to “re-open the Saskatchewan economy.” I will leave critiques about whether the plan adequately addresses testing and the public health needs of the province to those more qualified to make them. Suffice it to say I, like many others, was relieved just to get some semblance of a plan to make the future seem a little less uncertain. And credit to the government for its insistence on a gradual, phased in roll-out guided by rigorous monitoring and evidence of transmission.

However, it is one thing to announce the economy is opening, and another to ensure it can open.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is the way it has revealed just how much we rely on the labour of others. The essential labour of public health workers, grocery store workers, postal carriers, utility workers, long-haul truckers and many others have sustained us to the point that we can even entertain re-opening the economy.

But to re-open the province’s economy requires us to reckon with another group of workers whose labour is also often unacknowledged and under appreciated. I’m speaking of teachers, support staff, child care workers and others who care for our children. 219,000 workers in Saskatchewan—roughly 40 per cent of the workforce—have children under the age of 18. We can safely assume a large portion of these workers will not be able to return to work without some form of school or child care—neither of which is set to re-open anytime soon.

We can announce the economy is open for business until we are blue in the face, but unless they have somewhere to send their children, those workers aren’t going anywhere—a problem that others are quickly recognizing. Sure, some may be able to continue to work from home, but many others will be faced with the impossible choice of returning to work without sufficient care in place for their children. How many will turn to elderly relatives for child care, further risking their health as has happened in Italy and Spain?  How will the government support those workers who are recalled to work but have no choice but to remain home because they do not have child care?

Currently, Saskatchewan provides 12 weeks of job protection for those laid off during the crisis, but with schools unlikely to reopen until September and child care not expected to fully return until phase three of the government plan, how many workers will exhaust these protections in the coming months? These workers cannot be left behind simply because they cannot meet the government’s re-opening schedule.

The government is right to be cautious and careful as it attempts to re-start the economy, but it must be equally careful and cautious that its decisions don’t jeopardize the lives and the livelihoods of the people they serve.


Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.