Despite bleak job losses, Manitoba possesses Canada's sunniest pandemic employment picture

Manitoba fared better than any other province when it came to holding onto jobs during the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal labour statistics reveal.

COVID-19 is hammering Manitoba, but effective unemployment is worse in every other province

Graham Avenue coffee shop Thom Bargen closed during the pandemic. Manitoba has suffered massive job losses, but proportionately less than the rest of Canada. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The loss of jobs over the past two months in Manitoba has created the most bleak employment picture since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Nonetheless, Manitoba is doing better than anywhere else in Canada based on key labour statistics.

Between February and April, the province lost nearly 84,900 jobs, most of them at retail stores, wholesalers, restaurants and hotels, Statistics Canada reported Friday as part of its monthly labour survey.

That 84,900 figure includes Manitobans who are unemployed as well as those no longer considered part of the workforce because they're unable to look for work — either because their industries don't exist at the moment or they must stay home to care for kids or other dependents.

Economists used the term "effective unemployment" to describe the number of conventionally unemployed workers plus former workers who can't even look for jobs due to the pandemic.

Effective unemployment was 23 per cent in April in Manitoba, lower than in any other province.

Effective unemployment paints a more complete picture than unemployment on its own, said Trevor Tombe, a University of Calgary economist.

"Because there are many people who are not counted as technically part of the labour force because they're out of work and not looking, we need a broader measure to truly get a sense of scale here," Tombe said in an interview.

While there's nothing positive to be gleaned from the knowledge one in four working-age Manitobans were forced on to the sidelines in April, every other province fared worse.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Effective unemployment hovered around 30 per cent in most provinces and approached 40 per cent in both Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador.

Manitoba also did relatively well in two other measures of employment carnage. This province experienced the smallest percentage decline in Canada in total working hours between February and April.

The total hours worked in Manitoba dropped by 19 per cent over the two-month span. The loss of hours in other provinces ranged from 22.2 per cent in Saskatchewan to 36.4 per cent in Quebec.

The average Manitoban worker also lost fewer hours than the average worker in other provinces. The average working-age Manitoban spent 6.9 per cent fewer hours at work in April than they did in February. 

In the rest of the country, the average worker lost anywhere from 11 per cent of their hours in Saskatchewan to 21.8 per cent of their time on the job in Quebec.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

To be clear, these are flimsy silver livings. Still, Manitoba's relatively strong employment showing compared to the rest of the country demands examination.

There are a number of potential explanations.

For starters, Manitoba reported very few cases of COVID-19 during the initial weeks of the pandemic and relatively few cases compared to its population overall.

Given how disruptive the illness is — demanding quarantines and shuttering workplaces — it makes sense to see Manitoba's relatively favourable economic picture mirror its public health outcome.

It's also plausible the nature of Manitoba's economic shutdown threw fewer people out of work. While some provinces banned all non-essential business, Manitoba allowed retailers to continue operating with curbside pickup.

"Our lockdown wasn't as comprehensive as others," said Phil Cyrenne, a University of Winnipeg economist. "I think that should help us in general."

Just as significantly, Manitoba held on to more of its public-sector workers between February and April than did most other provinces.

According to Statistics Canada, 2.1 per cent of Manitoba public-sector workers lost their jobs between February and April. Only in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia did smaller proportions of public-sector employees wind up out of work.

In Ontario, Alberta and B.C., closer to six per cent of public-sector workers wound up unemployed. The figure was 9.5 per cent in Quebec.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

These tallies include all public-sector workers, not just provincial employees. In Manitoba, Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the provincial public workforce will be cut by an average of 2.2 per cent. 

The province got closer to that goal on Monday, when Crown corporation Manitoba Hydro signalled its intention to lay off as many as 700 workers.

There's no guarantee Manitoba's relative good fortune in terms of job losses will translate into an earlier economic recovery. Too many variables remain unknown.

"I don't think businesses are ready for how long it will take to rehire people," said Cyrenne, noting some people collecting Canada Emergency Response Benefits are earning more than they did when they held minimum-wage jobs.

The even greater question is how badly the loss of 84,900 jobs will impact the rest of the economy, as the loss of consumer spending power spins off into manufacturing, transportation and other sectors of the economy.




About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.


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