Research sheds light on work and inequality during the pandemic and beyond

Joelena Leader

Introducing Dr. Dionne Pohler (PhD), Associate Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour, who recently joined the Edwards School of Business (Edwards) from her position as the Acting Director and PhD Chair of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto. Pohler holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Dalhousie University, a PhD in Human Resources and Industrial Relations from the University of Alberta School of Business and a Chartered Professional in Human Resources designation from CPHR Saskatchewan. She previously held positions at Edwards and the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). Pohler was recently appointed Vice-Chair of the Government of Canada’s Employment Equity Act Review Task Force and is the new Co-operative Retailing System (CRS) Chair in Co-operative Governance with the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at USask. 

Pohler’s research covers topics in labour and employment, organizational governance, human resource management, co-operative development and strategy, and public policy implementation. Her research is published in peer-reviewed academic journals including ILR Review, Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Human Resource Management, and Canadian Public Policy. She holds four international awards for her research and three university teaching awards. She has received several Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grants and a major industry grant and is an active public and media commentator.

Understanding inequality in Canada

Pohler’s research is aimed at understanding the ways that inequality plays out in communities, the labour market, and organizations. Specifically, her big question focuses on how labour and social policies as well as organizational governance models and HR practices can increase or decrease inequality in people’s access to jobs, goods, and services.

“The majority of production in our society is undertaken in communities and organizations, and work is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Understanding how organizations are governed and their HR policies are structured, and also how organizations interact with broader labour and social policies, is important for understanding who has access to what jobs and how they're compensated and treated in those jobs. It is really important to understand issues of inequality in society more broadly,” said Pohler.

From her perspective, it is critical to pay attention to the unintended consequences of public policies and HR practices on inequality, and to consider worker voice and power in the development of these policies and practices. “You need to think about workers’ choices as well as how organizations develop their HR policies and practices and the way that governments create income support systems and employment laws that affect how workers and organizations interact with each other,” she explained. “A lot of inequalities can be created even with the most well-intentioned government policies or HR practices by organizations.”

Her recent work in this area focuses on three main topics including the gender earnings gap and motherhood penalty, the impact of COVID-19 on low-income workers, and the design of a guaranteed basic income in Canada.

Gender dimensions in the labour market and organizations

Pohler’s research with Michael Baker, Sarah Kaplan, April Franco and Shannon Potter on the factors that contribute to the gender wage gap in Canada has led her to examine why the birth of a first child widens the earnings gap between men and women in the labour market – the so-called motherhood penalty. Her research explores whether mothers are more likely than fathers to switch organizations or jobs after the birth of a first child, and whether those firms and jobs that women switch to pay less.

“Because women still shoulder the primary household responsibility for childcare, they may move to organizations that have more flexible scheduling or family friendly practices that can support them in raising a family – those firms may offer lower wages because they have different kinds of benefits, which widens the earnings gap.”

According to Pohler, family-friendly practices such as extended parental or maternity leave benefits are attractive to people who want to raise families. But these benefits can be expensive for employers and so a holistic view of compensation should be adopted that goes beyond simply looking at wages or earnings when determining gender earnings gaps. “When you consider the cost of any additional benefits that employers provide like paid parental leave, the gender total compensation gap may be smaller than the gender earnings gap or it could be larger. That is something that we are looking to explore in this research.”

We also can’t rule out that mothers may be more likely than fathers to experience direct or systemic discrimination by employers. As Pohler explains: “Care work has for much of modern history been unpaid or low-paid and invisible because it was predominantly undertaken by women within the home. While that is changing as men take on more domestic responsibilities, we know that in organizations and occupations where women cluster, especially in the case of caring occupations, that those jobs have been compensated much less relative to occupations where men cluster, even if the skills, responsibility, and working conditions are equivalent across the male and female-dominated jobs. And COVID highlighted the critical importance of care work in supporting the basic functioning of society.”

Pohler wants to highlight that “Understanding the factors that contribute to the gender earnings gap and how to appropriately measure and account for them is a really complex area.”

COVID-19 impacts on low-income workers

One of Pohler’s recent studies, Labor Markets in Crisis: The Double Liability of Low-Wage Work During COVID-19 published in Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, focused on the impact of COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns on the labour market. This research, which was co-authored with PhD student Kourtney Koebel, identified the disproportionate impacts that COVID-19 had on low-income workers, with a surprising twist.

“There was a lot of narrative early on in the pandemic that low-income workers were disproportionately likely to lose their jobs, or all of their hours and we definitely saw this in the data,” Pohler described. “However, we also found that there was a group of low-income workers, likely those working in essential roles, who ended up working more in the early stages of the pandemic. This group of low-income workers increased their hours more than higher-income workers.”

Koebel and Pohler refer to this as the “double liability” of low-wage work. Some low-income workers who did not work in essential jobs (such as retail clerks, restaurant servers) were more likely to lose their jobs during the forced business shutdowns, while those working in essential jobs (such as warehouse workers, grocery store clerks, personal support workers in long term care) saw demand for their services increase. Since low-income workers were less likely to be able to work from home, they also faced an increased risk of contracting COVID.

As Pohler notes, “Not only were low-income workers the hardest hit in terms of job loss, some of them also worked more outside the home, and in some cases in high-risk jobs. These workers supported many higher income workers who were able to isolate and transition to working from home, and who were ordering a lot more online.”

Pohler’s research examined how external shocks such as a pandemic and forced lockdowns have disproportionate impacts on workers based on where they are in the income distribution. Importantly, her work also highlights how government and organizational policies can do better to protect all employees. She and several co-authors wrote a follow-up paper to help people understand what impact programs like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit would have had on low-income workers.

“What is most problematic is that many of these low-income workers would not have been able to access employment insurance, and many were still not able to access emergency income support like the CERB, for instance, if they voluntarily quit their jobs because they were afraid of the virus or lived with an immune-compromised family member. When you think about how these disruptions impact different groups of workers, you might have to design public policies and organizational practices in a way that considers the differential impact prior to implementing them to ensure that all workers are protected and that they have the basic income support that they need to weather these kinds of shocks.”

Designing a guaranteed basic income in Canada

In a recent article on Expanding the Canada Workers Benefit to Design a Guaranteed Basic Income published in the Canadian Public Policy journal, Pohler and doctoral student Kourtney Koebel collaborated on research that explored how to design a guaranteed basic income in Canada that does not disincentivize work. They argue that a basic guaranteed income which removes stigmatization and the problems associated with access that current social assistance and employment insurance programs have for low-income workers would create a more equitable and supportive society that could still encourage paid work.

“We have designed a targeted basic income that would require cooperation between the provinces and the federal government to implement,” said Pohler. “There are programs that are currently structured a lot like this such as the Canada Workers Benefit, which provides an earning subsidy to low-income workers and operates in a very similar way to the guaranteed basic income that we are proposing. In fact, we propose to build a basic income using the Canada Workers Benefit as the starting point.”

Pohler described how there is a lot of work that people do for free every day that is socially valuable and that is the reason that society continues to operate. “A basic income could support people in continuing to do those socially valuable activities and would also value some of the care work activities that are currently underpaid or unpaid in our communities.”

“It is not that far of a stretch in Canada to think about a guaranteed basic income for low-income workers when you think about the fact that we already have a basic income for children in this country, and we also have a basic income for seniors,” she explained.

Further to this, one idea that is holding us back from creating a basic income for all Canadians is that people expect working-age Canadians to work. “As we saw during the pandemic, the reality is that sometimes people are unable to find a job. Sometimes people just need access to income support for a short period of time. How do we design income support policies that do not discourage working?” asks Pohler.

“The way that you do it is by providing an earnings supplement or subsidy to low-income workers that that allows them to move out of poverty and overcome fixed costs of working like transportation and childcare, but also, that would allow them to have access to basic income support that's easier to access than employment insurance or social assistance in the event of a widespread catastrophe, like the pandemic, but also personal catastrophes, like a death in the family or an illness,” she explained.

“I think that these are the kinds of social insurance systems we should think about for workers if we are going to create a more equitable and supportive society.”

To learn more, check out Pohler’s opinion piece published in the National Post: To address the needs of Canadians during the COVID-19 crisis, we need a targeted basic income.

Funding Acknowledgment: This research has been funded by the University of Toronto, the CIBC Chair in Youth Employment, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

To learn more about Dionne Pohler’s work, check out her profile page!


Budd, J., Pohler, D., & Huang, W. (forthcoming). Making Sense of (Mis)Matched Frames of Reference: A Dynamic Cognitive Theory of (In)Stability in HR Practices. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society.

Koebel, K., Pohler, D., Gomez, R., & Mohan, A. (2021). Public Policy in a Time of Crisis: A Framework for Evaluating Canada's COVID-19 Income Support Programs. Canadian Public Policy, 47(2): 316-333. 

Koebel, K., & Pohler, D. (2020). Labor Markets in Crisis: The Double Liability of Low-Wage Work During COVID-19. Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, 59(4): 503-531.

Budd, J., Colvin, A., & Pohler, D. (2020). Advancing Dispute Resolution by Unpacking the Sources of Conflict: Toward an Integrated Framework. ILR Review, 73(2): 254-280.

Pohler, D. (Editor, 2020). Reimagining the Governance of Work and Employment. Labor and Employment Relations Association Annual Research Volume. (Distributed through Cornell University Press).

Koebel, K., & Pohler, D. (2019). Expanding the Canada Workers Benefit to Design a Guaranteed Basic Income. Canadian Public Policy, 45(3): 283-309.

Pohler, D., & Riddell, C. (2019). Multinationals' compliance with employment law: An empirical assessment using administrative data from Ontario, 2004-2015. ILR Review, 72(3): 606-635.

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