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Tech’s COVID-19 layoffs have outsized impact on racialized, immigrant workers: Survey

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Racialized and immigrant workers were disproportionately likely to be affected by the pandemic-inducted layoffs at Canadian startups, according to a new report from hiring platform Prospect.

Black, Indigenous and people of colour were already underrepresented in the sector before COVID-19 struck, and the cuts of recent months could exacerbate that shortfall. But tech executives say some companies are paying more attention to the composition of their workforce as they rehire or look to grow in the post-pandemic recovery. 

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Talking Point

Black, Indigenous and people of colour are underrepresented in the startup workforce, but overrepresented among those laid off or unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, per a new report from hiring platform Prospect. But tech executives say an increasing number of firms are focusing on diversity as they rehire or grow.  

Prospect and Feminuity, an inclusion-consulting firm, surveyed workers who were unemployed or lost tech-sector jobs during the pandemic. Just over three-fifths of respondents (61 per cent) identified as racialized, and more than half said they were first-generation immigrants to Canada.  

The results show there are “critical flaws in how we are approaching inclusion in our workforce if those that are most underrepresented in [the tech sector] were disproportionately impacted,” said Prospect CEO Marianne Bulger in an interview with The Logic.

More than a fifth (22.0 per cent) of the unemployed workers who answered Prospect’s survey identified as South Asian; Chinese (10.4 per cent), Southeast Asian (8.2 per cent), Black (5.5 per cent) and Arab (7.0 per cent) respondents were also significantly represented. Indian immigrants (21.4 per cent) were most common among the non-Canadian-born, followed by arrivals from the U.K., China and the U.S. 

Members of visible-minority groups make up 31.4 per cent of tech workers and immigrants 37.5 per cent, according to a January 2019 study by Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The Prospect and Brookfield figures aren’t directly comparable, since the Help List includes people working in non-engineering and -development positions at startups such as marketing and HR. 

Junior- and intermediate-level workers have been most likely to lose their jobs in pandemic layoffs, noted Avery Francis, founder and CEO of Toronto-based recruitment agency Bloom. “There’s less representation in senior levels,” especially director and C-suite roles, she said. “That’s why we’re seeing this heavily weighted impact on folks from marginalized and underrepresented communities.” 

The pandemic has similarly disproportionately affected racialized workers in the wider economy. Statistics Canada’s July Labour Force Survey (LFS)—the first to collect data on visible minorities—found that the unemployment rate for white people had increased the least year over year of any demographic group, up 4.4 percentage points. South Asian (9.1 percentage points), Chinese (8.4 percentage points) and Black (6.3 percentage points) workers were much more likely to have lost their jobs. 

“We’re anecdotally hearing that [furloughs and layoffs are] disproportionately impacting Black tech professionals,” said Lekan Olawoye, founder of the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN)—particularly since such workers are already underrepresented in the wider innovation-economy workforce. In August, the group published a survey in which nearly 65 per cent of respondents said COVID-19 had affected their employment or work life. 

There’s also been a toll on mental health. “Black professionals are not only taking care of themselves, but actually have to take care of extended family,” said Olawoye, noting that Black workers tend to be overrepresented in the frontline occupations that bore the brunt of pandemic job losses.

Employment among core innovation-economy workers like software developers, engineers, and life-science professionals has rebounded after a small drop at the beginning of the pandemic. More than 1.08 million people were employed in professional occupations in the natural and applied sciences in September, according to the LFS—the fourth consecutive month of record highs. Employment is now 7.6 per cent higher than it was in February, while the wider workforce is still 1.86 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. (StatCan occupational figures are unadjusted for seasonality).

Plenty of Canadian tech firms have continued to hire, particularly those in businesses that have seen pandemic-related increases in demand such as telehealth, e-learning and biotech. Bulger said many of the respondents to Prospect’s survey have since found new work, and postings on the platform have picked up. “We are starting to see that recovery,” she said, although she noted there may be more startup layoffs as government COVID-19 support measures end.

The recovery may also include more racialized workers. Bloom and BPTN have heard from an increasing number of companies interested in ensuring representation in the hiring process in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, after a Minneapolis police officer killed resident George Floyd in May. 

“For organizations that are in a position to hire and are growing, they’re being really intentional about who they hire,” Francis said. Bloom works with organizations to make their recruitment processes more equitable and inclusive, for example by using tools to review role descriptions for biased language and remove identity-revealing information from resumes. 

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In March, the pandemic looked set to have “a devastating impact on diversity in the workforce,” Olawoye said. But while representation has suffered, “there’s a realization that companies cannot afford to take a step back—they will lose long term.” Progressive firms are “thinking about how to ensure that there is representation in their rehiring process,” he said.

The Prospect survey had 350 respondents; about 3,600 people have added their names to the Help List, a database of tech workers laid off during the pandemic that the company helped launch. Bulger called for the federal government to conduct a wider study of the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on different demographic groups in the tech sector.