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By Amanda Persico, Georgina Advocate, Tuesday, December 28, 2021

While some may say it was an improvement over the previous year, there was still a lot about 2021 that we’d like to forget. There were some highlights, however, and our reporters have launched a Reflections Series, in which each of them shares a story that had an impact on them.

What Kaitlin Ward was expecting when she was expecting was not at all what she expected. 

Instead of a full year of maternity leave, the new Georgina mom was caught between emergency recovery benefits and employment insurance (EI) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. 

As a result of the provincewide shutdown during the early days of 2021, Ward applied for the now-expired Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit (CERB). When the program expired, her file transferred over to EI.

But the chain reaction resulted in her maternity leave being whittled down to only four months and her heading back to work part-time. 

I’m being robbed,” she said at the time.

Ward welcomed Gordie-Rose Hurl on Aug. 24.

“Hard to believe I’ll only have until December with her. These polices are outrageous.” 

During her plight, the new mom connected with thousands of other women in similar situations. 

“I was surprised how many women were in the same boat,” she said. “And so many are worse off. Some had to return to work after only two weeks. So many women are fighting this at tribunals.”

“Basically, it was an error,” she said. “We were told it could get fixed one day. But we don’t know when or how.”

Instead of waiting for the federal government to correct the oversight, Ward took matters into her own hands and opened her own business. 

Ward, together with co-owner Sara Holbrook, opened Ess and Cay Salon and Experience in Keswick. 

“Opening a business within months of having a baby was so stressful,” Ward said. “While it’s crazy trying to navigate everything, it’s so rewarding.”

Women faced additional economic challenges during the pandemic from greater job insecurity as a result of business shutdowns to shouldering the caregiving burden during school closures.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce examined the gendered economic impacts of the pandemic in the She-Covery Project report. 

Dubbed by economists as the “she-session,” the pandemic saw women’s participation in the workforce drop to record low levels — the lowest in 30 years. 

One of the reasons for the drop, according to the report, is the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic — retail, food and accommodations, arts and recreation, social and personal services — are the sectors where women are more likely to be employed. 

The project outlined a number of future improvement areas including long-term child care strategies, flexible work arrangements, support for women entrepreneurs and re-skilling into fast-growing sectors. 

The provincial government took note and responded by establishing the Task Force on Women and the Economy earlier this year. 

During the pandemic, employment among women dropped by more than five per cent, compared to three per cent among men. 

“While the pandemic has challenged us all, women have been disproportionately impacted, facing higher job losses and carrying a greater burden of family care,” said Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy when the task force was announced. 

The goal of the task force is to “address the unique and disparate economic barriers women face, particularly as we rebuild our economy post-COVID-19,” by supporting women as they enter and re-enter the workforce and supporting women’s entrepreneurship. 

During 2021, Ward experienced both sides of the pandemic — shut out of work and then becoming a business owner herself.

In fact, losing out on her maternity leave pushed her in the direction of opening her own salon and becoming her own boss. 

“I didn’t want to be self-employed until after I had kids,” said the new Keswick mom. “But I wasn’t before, and I still didn’t get my mat leave. I didn’t want to open my own business until my mat leave was over. It’s ending, so what was I waiting for?”

Becoming her own boss was the right move in securing her future. 

“This year was so messed up and stressful,” Ward said. “I guess, this is the silver lining. This brings being a fighter to a whole new level.”