2020 was a year of unprecedented change and transformation.
The coronavirus crisis catapulted the world into rapid change. Globally, populations entered lockdowns, businesses closed, and organisations were suddenly faced with the prospect of delivering their entire service model online. This necessitated a rapid transition into remote work, the adoption of new strategies, the move to new communication styles, and widespread behavioural changes. The embracing of the “new normal” was powered by a technological transformation that we might not have seen if not for the pandemic. New technologies were invested in to help support the remote-working model. Companies found themselves revaluating their existing internal cultures and trying to find ways to maintain employee participation, resilience and morale, in what was one of the most challenging periods many will ever face.
The rapid transformation brought many positives, the flexibility of working from home helped many people return to the labour market, and new emergent technologies helped accelerate the digital transformation of many businesses. However, for some, the pandemic worsened existing inequalities.
During the pandemic, many women faced disproportionate effects of the crisis. A report from the Women’s Budget Group found that while women make up around 47% of the UK’s labour force, they represented 52% of all people furloughed. The report then went on to extrapolate data from HMRC which showed that by the end of February 2021, there were 2.3 million women furloughed in comparison to 2.1 million men. For many women, the pandemic brought unique struggles. They tended to absorb more of the unpaid work of the crisis and struggled to balance the demands of motherhood and work while also facing higher rates of redundancy and furlough.
Old, ingrained stereotypes about women and their position in the labour market contributed towards women being worse off as a result of the pandemic. Assumptions around where the responsibility of care should be, who should juggle home-schooling, any wider family care requirements and work are deeply engrained regardless of the working status of both parents. Employers can and should be working to mitigate the imbalances found in work. This could take the form of flexible parental leave and guarantees that fathers who take time off work will not face repercussions in their career.
Race and Ethnicity
The pandemic has had startling effects on young black workers. According to analysis conducted by The Guardian, more than 40% are unemployed, almost three times as many as white workers. Between October and December 2020, 41.6% of young black people were unemployed compared to 12.4% of white workers within the same age group.
Historical inequalities across society also affect the employment market and it seems that young black workers are shouldering the brunt of the economic downturn. Before the crisis, many black workers were in jobs that held less contractual security such as zero-hour contracts, fixed-term contracts and cash-in-hand roles. With the pandemic forcing many of these insecure roles to disappear as well as the stringent requirements needed to qualify for furlough schemes, many people instead ended up unemployed and further from the labour market.
More work needs to be done to reduce barriers to entry for young black workers. The implementation of specialised, tailored support would be beneficial, alongside more research into understanding some of the structural barriers that may be preventing young black workers to return to employment. Issues such as structural racism and the higher likelihood of young BME people being from lower-income backgrounds directly affect employment outcomes.
For many disabled people, the pandemic has caused a silent jobs crisis, while the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus crisis on other groups have been spoken about widely, often the plight of disabled people over the last year has been ignored.
Research Fellow Vera Kubenz, from the University of Birmingham, commented that disabled people had been widely “excluded from [the government’s] plans” in the response to the pandemic. Furthermore, she discussed the “worrying lack of data on how disabled people have been affected” by the crisis which has led to policy that doesn’t take the unique needs of disabled people into account.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), between April and June last year, the unemployment rate for disabled people was almost double that of the rest of the population. Many disabled people relied on more insecure forms of work before the pandemic as those were the jobs that offered the most flexibility in terms of hours and availability, as we moved towards a remote-working model these jobs disappeared.
As the economy reopens and these jobs reappear, disabled people will face intense competition for these roles as unemployment is so high across the population.
Employers have a responsibility to ensure they are prioritising the needs of disabled workers and jobseekers if the new normal consists of a mix of office-based and remote working, and organisations must ensure they are taking the opportunity to encourage more disabled workers into the workplace as this pandemic has proven that flexible and accessible working is possible.
There is hope
There is hope on the horizon: according to the latest statistics from the ONS, the UK’s unemployment rate fell slightly in the last quarter (January- March 2021) and the employment rate rose for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. However, the number of people in long-term unemployment rose between January and March 2021 compared with the same period last year. While we may be seeing signs of early recovery, there is still much work to be done. As the restrictions across the country lift, and the threat of the new Covid-19 variants still looms, there may be more extended periods of uncertainty and disruption. In order to truly build back better, we must address the heightened inequality and find ways to make further progress to ensure everyone is represented in the new normal.