Alberta's women's shelters facing staffing shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic, survey shows

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Alberta’s women’s shelters are facing staffing shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic as employees in the female-dominated sector juggle their careers and personal caregiving responsibilities, shows a survey released Wednesday.

Nearly all domestic violence shelter workers in Alberta are women, significantly higher than other female-majority industries such as health care, education and hospitality, according to the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (ACWS) 2019-20 workforce survey. As a result, many shelters have faced staffing shortages as employees balance their professional and personal responsibilities.

To address these shortages, shelters have had to expand their staffing pools, introduce or expand on-call systems, change sick times and leave policies to better support workers and shut down or suspend programs.

ACWS executive director Jan Reimer said the impact the pandemic has had on women has been substantial.

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“We’ve seen that, not just here in our sector but really around the world, how it is women who are in those caregiving roles and at work they are the ones that are on the front lines and are the most susceptible to getting COVID,” she said. “(They) also have all sorts of other caregiving responsibilities on top of that and given the gender wage gap, it means that disproportionately they are really carrying the load.”

In February 2020, the participation rate for Alberta women 25 years and older in the workforce was 64.9 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. In April 2020, the participation rate dropped to 59.7 per cent, in comparison to 72.6 per cent for men 25 years and older. The participation rate for women increased to 64.3 per cent in February 2021.

The survey also highlighted some of the financial challenges shelter workers face, including making on average $27.53 an hour compared to $29.70 for the average Albertan. The salary was one of the main barriers shelters listed for recruiting new staff.

The survey includes several recommendations to improve the situation at shelters, including improving funding for women-serving organizations, providing affordable childcare, promoting gender equality with policies and benefits, and standardizing monitoring of indicators on women’s economic well-being.

Reimer said many shelters are facing financial challenges as the pandemic has impacted fundraising efforts.

“Having a robust funding model for women’s shelters is really important as we move forward,” she said, acknowledging that both the federal and provincial governments have provided additional funding for COVID-19.

“Having more flexibility around salaries and benefits in terms of the funding model would be extremely helpful. Affordable childcare is really important to our staff, particularly because they do have that wage gap.”

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