Low-wage earners hit hardest by pandemic job market

Employment counsellor David McKay says he's encountered the full suite of emotions from his clients during the pandemic. Some have been optimistic about finding new jobs, but he's mainly seen frustration.

Isolation, lack of resources and service job losses make a frustrating mix

Lower-wage jobs have been disproportionately lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent report from CIBC Economics. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Employment counsellor David McKay says he's encountered the full suite of emotions from his clients at a Toronto-area employment centre during the pandemic. While some have been optimistic about finding new opportunities, he's predominantly encountered frustration.

"You're seeing anxiety, you're seeing people who are feeling isolated, lack of social resources to deal with things," said McKay, who's been with the Durham Region Unemployed Help Centre for nearly 16 years. 

"I've seen a couple of people who are students who are coming to the end of their college diplomas or their university degrees and saying, 'I don't know whether there's jobs in the thing I've been training for in the last two years, what am I going to do about it?'"

The pandemic is hitting lower-wage jobs the hardest. According to a recent report published by CIBC Economics, all of the jobs lost in the country last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic earned $27.81 an hour or less. The average hourly wage rate for full- and part-time employees in 2020 was around $31 an hour, according to Statistics Canada.

The January report, written by CIBC deputy chief economist Benjamin Tal, used Statistics Canada data on the pandemic's impact on below-average wages. It did not include the actual number of jobs lost to the pandemic last year; the country lost 213,000 jobs in total in January, according to Statistics Canada, and 63,000 in December but gained 62,000 in November. 

The jobs lost in January were entirely part-time and particularly hit the retail sectors in Ontario and Quebec, which both locked down to combat the spread of the virus.

The CIBC report noted that the statistics are similar to recessions like that of the 2008-09 financial crisis, with one stark difference.

Higher-income Canadians, those earning $27.82 or more per hour, "have experienced net job gains during the current crisis — an anomaly during a recession," Tal wrote.

"So the surprise here is that, not only did high-wage earners not experience job loss, but in fact they have gained almost 350,000 jobs over the past year."

The pandemic is "a service-oriented crisis and that sector is populated by low-paying jobs," Tal said. 

"This is a very abnormal and asymmetrical crisis."

WATCH | COVID-19's unequal economic recession:

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More than a million Canadians are still under- or unemployed as a result of COVID-19, but the crisis also allowed others, who were easily able to work from home, save more money.

Anxiety over returning to work

McKay said he and his colleagues have supported people formerly in the service industry, notably retail and food workers, among others. He said most of the centre's clients earned closer to Ontario's minimum wage of $14.25 per hour at their previous jobs.

"It's often people who don't have their own resources who come to our agency to begin with, and so we probably see more of the people on the lower end of the economic spectrum to begin with, even before COVID factors in," he said.

"And there's a lot of concern and anxiety about going back. Even if they go back, is it worth going back for five hours a week when they were getting 25 or 30 hours a week before?"

The centre, which has locations in Oshawa and Pickering, also helps young people, those with disabilities and new Canadians find work through various government programs, says executive director Maralyn Tassone.

There are also opportunities to retrain for different sectors, she says, particularly as truck drivers and personal support workers.

"People feel there are no jobs to be had. And that's actually not the situation at all, because we have employers calling us and stating that they're looking for people," Tassone said, noting that Statistics Canada itself and Amazon are both looking to hire people in the region.

The work McKay and his colleagues do has also been impacted by the pandemic, particularly when connecting remotely with some of their clients.

"There are certain things that you want to be able to do face-to-face, which are more difficult to do," he said. 

"The sorts of people that have been hit hardest by this are often people who have less access to technology or less access to the skill set needed to operate the technology."

Employment counsellor David McKay said he's encountered concerns from people he's worked with over whether it's worth returning to work for fewer hours as the pandemic continues. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)


Benjamin Blum is a producer with based in Toronto. He has also worked as a senior writer with, covering an array of international and domestic issues, and was a member of the CBC Sports digital team with a particular focus on rugby. He holds a master's of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax. You can contact him at

With files from The Canadian Press


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