New IHREC and ESRI Study Explores the Equality Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Labour Market

A new study from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (‘the Commission’) and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), published today, explores the equality impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the labour market, comparing the situation pre- and post-pandemic. Findings show that employment rates rose for almost all groups analysed post-pandemic, while unemployment and labour market inactivity generally fell.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on society, and a seismic impact on economic rights and access to work, through the range of public health restrictions imposed. In this context, the labour market recovery has been extraordinary, and shines a light on the buffering effect of the Government’s supports for businesses, employers and individuals, highlighting the protective and stabilising role of significant public investment.

The study argues that the recovery was likely facilitated by large-scale state intervention during the pandemic in terms of employment and social welfare supports. At their height, COVID-related employment schemes supported around one million individuals and 37,000 enterprises. Such schemes could be usefully activated in future labour market crises, if they were carefully designed and adequately resourced.

While employment recovered the pattern of inequalities that existed before the pandemic are the same after the pandemic.  There is also evidence that some groups have fallen further behind, for example people with lower education levels faired poorer than other groups, both in terms of labour market participation and the nature of work available to them, during the period. The available data also highlights that disabled people’s economic activation pre and post-pandemic shows little change, underlining the need for targeted employment strategies for historically marginalised groups. Additionally, we know that access to remote work was not evenly spread.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Evidence suggests that the labour market impact during the Covid-19 pandemic was not evenly spread. Young people, for example, experienced the greatest falls in employment and participation. Higher education was found to be a protective factor, with much higher rates of employment among those with higher education levels throughout the period.
  • While younger workers were initially more negatively affected during the pandemic, in the post-pandemic period in 2022, their employment rate had risen more than other age groups.
  • While employment rates improved for some disabled people, employment rates among disabled people who identified as strongly limited in their activities fell further during the pandemic.
  • Remote working experienced a remarkable rise since the beginning of the pandemic, though some groups, such as workers with lower education and those living in rural areas benefited less from this rise.
  • The rise in remote working was strongly patterned by occupation and sector, with the greatest increases in IT and financial services, and for workers in professional and clerical support occupations.
  • The rise in remote working also coincided with an increase in women’s working hours by 1.1%. While this may be good news for women’s economic inequality, it may also lead to greater work-family conflict if there is no related reduction in hours of unpaid work. This finding highlights the need for good data on unpaid work in Ireland, particularly when considering gender equality in the labour market.

Policy Implications:

  • The rapid recovery in economic activity after pandemic-related restrictions were lifted was facilitated by large-scale state investment and supports for individuals, employers and businesses, learning which should be embedded in Government labour market policy, strategy and investment.
  • As the full effects of remote working are yet to be realised, ongoing monitoring should consider if remote working is creating opportunities, or reinforcing inequalities.
  • Additionally, this study highlighted an absence of labour market activity data on key groups. For example, a lack of comparable Labour Force Survey data on disabled people and an absence of data on the outcome of ethnic minority and LGBTI groups, makes monitoring the effectiveness of national strategies* difficult and highlights the importance of the forthcoming Equality Data Strategy.

Eoin Ronayne, Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission stated:

‘The Commission is clear that the State must be able to respond to crises that threaten economic, social and cultural rights, as the Covid-19 pandemic did. While the labour market has seen a remarkable recovery post Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting the stabilising role of significant public investment, we know that inequality persists. It is critical now that the State embeds this learning, ensuring access to decent, quality work for all. We know that the impact of the pandemic was not evenly spread across all groups in society. I encourage the State to include a thorough examination of the impact of pandemic on all groups, including those most marginalised and at risk of inequality, in its upcoming Covid-19 inquiry’.

Author of the report, Anousheh Alamir, of the ESRI stated:

‘Potentially the greatest legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Irish labour market has been the rise of remote working. Yet not all jobs can be performed remotely, and some groups, such as those with lower qualifications and those based in rural areas, have not shared equally in access to remote working. The full consequences of remote working have yet to play out and this underscores the importance of ongoing monitoring of its effects on work and workers’.