Quebec unemployment rate soars to 17%, highest ever recorded

The COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on Quebec's economy, with the province recording its highest unemployment rate since at least 1976, when the data was first tracked.

The province's economy lost an estimated 821,000 jobs in April

A man walks through the empty parking lot at Marché central, an outdoor shopping centre in Montreal. Quebec's economy has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on Quebec's economy, with the province recording its highest unemployment rate since at least 1976, when the data was first tracked.

The province lost an estimated 821,000 jobs in April, bringing the unemployment rate to 17 per cent.

Quebec now has the highest unemployment rate of all the provinces, according to the Statistics Canada labour survey for April.

Only two months ago, in February, Quebec's economy was humming along with an unemployment rate of 4.5 per cent — its lowest ever since 1976.

Quebec, which now leads Canada in COVID-19 cases, shut down all but essential businesses on March 23 in an effort to curb the spread.

Volunteers prepare meals for food banks on the floor of Montreal's Bell Centre earlier this month. The province lost an estimated 821,000 jobs in April, putting a strain on food banks. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Construction in Quebec was particularly impacted by that shutdown, with employment in the sector declining by 39 per cent in April.

In all, four sectors — construction, manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade and accommodation and food services — made up 59 per cent of total job losses as compared to April 2019.

Legault presses to reopen businesses

Premier François Legault has been anxious to reopen the economy. Residential construction resumed April 20, and all other construction industry worksites will be back up and running on Monday.

He was forced to delay the lifting of some restrictions in Montreal, however, given the high number of COVID-19 cases in the province's largest city.

Overall, the Canadian economy lost almost two million jobs in April, also a record high.

Across the country, the unemployment rate soared to 13 per cent as the full force of the pandemic hit, compared with 7.8 per cent in March.

A report from Scotiabank Economics predicted the economic collapse would result in unprecedented debt levels in several provinces, with Quebec forecast to carry a net debt burden of more 51 per cent of nominal GDP in the current fiscal year.

According to the report, that would be the highest debt level ever recorded in Quebec, and "would undo nearly a decade of consolidation efforts."

"The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it are set to drive the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression, and we anticipate that all of Canada's provinces will witness deep recessions in 2020," the report said.

Despite the dire numbers, credit ratings agency Moody's said the province remains in good standing.

It cited the province's "broad tax base" and "solid long-term planning" to pay down the debt as positives, and said in a new report it does not anticipate downgrading Quebec's credit rating.

Hotels lay off most employees

By the end of March, about 86 per cent of hotel staff in the Montreal region were out of work, according the CEO of the Hotel Association of Greater Montreal, Eve Paré.

"Half of the properties decided to suspend their activities because the demand simply was not there," she said. "The other half have kept their operation going, but with minimal service."

No gyms, spas, bars or anything else, she said. Even housekeeping service is reduced to only once the client has checked out.

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds fly over a city that is largely shut down on Thursday. Usually Montreal's Old Port is hopping this time of year, attracting tourists to local hotels. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Being able to return the hotel industry to what it once was is unlikely with the border closed, travel restricted between provinces and physical-distancing rules still in place — rules that have nixed activities such as business conferences or wedding receptions, Paré said.

Once the economy does reopen, she said, there is a concern that staff won't return to work. But that's only a concern for those hotels that survive a partial economic shutdown that could last many more months.

"It is quite likely that we are going to lose some players in the long run," she said.

Construction worker worried for his future 

Gabriel Lavoie, a labourer from Longueuil, has been getting government assistance since March when the provincial government shut down most of Quebec's economy.

At first, Lavoie was waiting for work to pick up again, thinking the site closure was only temporary. Then it became clear that he wasn't going to be returning to the job any time soon.

Gabriel Lavoie, a labourer, was mostly doing residential demolition when the Legault government shut down non-essential businesses and construction sites in March. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

He has been sending out job applications, but so far he hasn't had any luck. 

"They try to keep their own workers," he said. "We don't know if the construction sites are all going to reopen."

So he is just waiting and hoping that he can start earning a salary again to support his family of six, including four young children. In some ways, it has been fun to have the family all together, but it hasn't always been easy.

"We're doing the best we can with the money the government sends us," Lavoie said.

With files from Simon Nakonechny

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