Where Canada's job market stands one year after the pandemic began

Canada added 259,000 jobs in February, recovering most of the jobs it lost in the previous two months.

The country added 259,000 jobs in February, but there are still 599,000 fewer people working than a year ago

Canada's employment rate reached 59.4 per cent in February, as the country added about 259,000 jobs. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The latest Labour Force Survey was more positive than expected, but Canada is still a long way from returning to its pre-pandemic economy.

February marked 12 months of "unprecedented changes in the Canadian labour market" due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistics Canada said in its monthly jobs report on Friday.

Here's a look at the latest news about the COVID economy.

Give me the bad news first

Compared with 12 months earlier, there were 599,000 fewer people employed and 406,000 more people working less than half their usual hours. That puts employment 3.1 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

The employment rate — the percentage of people 15 and up who are employed — was 59.4 per cent in February compared with 61.8 per cent in February 2020.

It plummeted to 51.5 per cent in April, the lowest it's been since comparable numbers have been kept and still hasn't climbed all the way back. 

Statistics Canada said February's improving numbers were largely influenced by the easing of pandemic restrictions in certain areas. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Who's suffering most?

Few have gotten off easy, but Statistics Canada said the sectors that suffered during a dip in December and January were those most affected by pandemic restrictions: retail, accommodation and food services.

These sectors disproportionately affect women, especially younger women.

There were 111,000 fewer women working in retail than 12 months earlier, while employment among men in that sector has changed little.

Statistics Canada noted that women are more concentrated in public-facing jobs such as sales reps and sales support workers, which are more affected by public health measures.

While women aged 24 to 54 did relatively well in February, with employment increasing 1.3 percentage points to December levels, year-over-year losses among young women, especially teenagers, were nearly double those seen among young men.

The employment rate among Indigenous women was down 6.8 percentage points year-over-year and was unchanged for Indigenous men.

OK, I'm ready for the good news

Good, because there's lots of it:

  • Canada added 259,000 jobs in February, recovering most of the jobs it lost in the previous two months during tighter pandemic restrictions.
  • The unemployment rate dropped from 9.4 per cent to 8.2 per cent, the lowest rate since March 2020, when the pandemic was declared.
  • The increase in employment is the biggest since September and handily exceeded analysts' expectations of 75,000 added jobs and an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent.
  • Both part-time and full-time work increased and long-term unemployment (27 weeks or more) fell by 9.7 per cent from a record high of 512,000 in January.
  • Among people who worked at least half their usual hours, the number working at locations other than home increased by 600,000 as schools and other workplaces reopened in several provinces, the agency said.

Statistics Canada separately reported strong production capacity and factory sales data and said Canadians continued to add to their personal savings and net worth at far higher rates than before the pandemic.

The Canadian dollar, meanwhile, strengthened to 1.25 to the greenback, or 80 US cents, after the data.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trumpeted the jobs numbers during a COVID-19 update in Ottawa on Friday, but said: "Let's not forget there's still too many people for whom things continue to be really tough."

He said the government is here to get people through the crisis and pointed to the Canada emergency wage subsidy and the Canada emergency rent subsidy.

How do the experts feel about the numbers?

They're bullish, mostly.

"A lot of this is the January numbers reversing, but there were also some full-time jobs being added, which shows improvement in the economy," said Andrew Kelvin, chief Canada strategist at TD Securities.

"It's a very positive set of numbers and suggests a quicker recovery for the broader economy."

Analysts said the blockbuster job gain shows that excess capacity is closing far faster than the Bank of Canada's expectations.

Derek Holt, vice-president of capital market economics at Scotiabank, said: "I would be surprised if they don't signal fairly soon that they are starting to back further away from their bond purchase program."

Bank of Canada deputy governor Lawrence Schembri said on Thursday that if Canadians start spending the massive nest egg they have amassed during the coronavirus pandemic, it could "meaningfully affect" economic growth.

So what's the catch?

Statistics Canada said February's numbers were strongly influenced by the easing of pandemic restrictions in provinces such as Quebec, Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, as well as parts of Ontario.

As such, the gains were concentrated in Ontario and Quebec and in jobs that pay $17.50 an hour or less and in industries that had just had big losses in January.

Though he's employed, Stacy Davidson is a good example of the struggles people are having in pandemic-vulnerable industries.

The bartender from North Vancouver told CBC News Network he is working three jobs, yet makes less than half of what he made before the pandemic. The number of patrons allowed inside his bar has been reduced and closing time has been moved to 10 p.m.

"People don't really have enough time to get substantially intoxicated enough to the level where they actually want to tip generously," Davidson said.

He said he's been forced to pull back, pushing his dream of owning his own bar down the road three years, and even cutting internet service at his house.

WATCH | North Vancouver bartender works three jobs to make ends meet:

North Vancouver bartender works 3 jobs to make ends meet

3 years ago
Duration 7:40
The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the hospitality industry and that's forced B.C.'s Stacy Davidson to pick up more bartending work as his wages tanked.

Where do we go from here?

Toronto-based Gareth Watson, an investment adviser at Richardson Wealth, said it's encouraging that jobs are still being created during one of the country's worst economic downturns. At the same time, it's important to note that employers are still very hesitant to bring back workers at full wages and full hours.

"You can get a job but only be working half the hours that you had before, but you still get counted as a new job," he said. "So we have to think about that as well. I just think it's the confidence of employers out there that needs to return."

Watson said if the vaccination rollout doesn't hit any major roadblocks, the economy could be running at 85 per cent of normal by the fall.

With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press

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