Heather Scoffield: Waiting for COVID-19 vaccinations is no way to help jobless Canadians

Good overview with some breakdowns by visible minority groups and women:

It was never going to be “happy Friday” with new unemployment numbers for January on deck, but there were plenty of signs it was going to at least be “silver-lining Friday.”

Alas, it’s neither of those. The labour market in January was the bleak mid-winter we feared, especially if you’re young, or a person of colour, or female, or a part-timer — or, God forbid, all of those at once. And policy-makers seem poorly equipped to do much about it for now, except to counsel patience.

About 213,000 jobs disappeared in January as some of most populated areas in Canada — namely Ontario and Quebec — tightened up pandemic restrictions. It means that the second wave is taking a serious toll, eroding the employment gains of the summer and fall and making a quick recovery more elusive.

At our worst point last April, when a firm lockdown was in place, about 5.5 million people were without work or dealing with reduced hours because of the pandemic. Summer allowed many people to return to work or find new jobs, but we’ve lost ground in December and January. And now, there are still 1.4 million affected workers, many of them in the same groups of people who were hit by the first wave.

Canada’s unemployment rate rose to 9.4 per cent in January, up from 8.8 per cent in December.

Digging a bit deeper, Southeast Asians saw their unemployment rate rise by 7.6 percentage points in January to 20.1 per cent — one in five. Black Canadians are at 16.4 per cent unemployment, up 5.5 percentage points from a month earlier.

Of Black women who are holding onto their jobs, almost a third were working in the health-care sector, and a third of those were in low-paid positions such as orderlies or nurses’ aides. In other words, they are holding onto pandemic employment by taking on poorly paid and often dangerous positions.

Unemployment among young people rose 1.9 percentage points to 19.7 per cent, and the job losses were particularly striking among part-timers and working-age teenagers.

Women lost twice as many jobs as men in January, especially mothers of young children.

We’ve been here before. The first wave showed us the same disturbing patterns, as the pandemic restraints shut down businesses involved in accommodation, tourism, travel, arts and culture, and food services.

But there were some signs that maybe the second wave would be kinder, and that employers were learning how to roll with lockdowns and constantly changing constraints. More than 5.4 million people are working from home, the highest number ever. High-income jobs have stayed protected. Capital markets are surging, creating a wealth effect. Housing prices are up. Commodity prices are up. And the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to keep the economy afloat. Job postings, according to Indeed Canada, are looking a lot like they did a year ago, before the pandemic.

But solutions for workers in public-facing industries are few and far between.

“To state the obvious, we didn’t figure it out,” said Leah Nord, senior director of workforce strategies and inclusive growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

The Conservatives called the job losses “devastating,” and Leader Erin O’Toole committed to “charting a new course” that sees Canadians put to work by “reshoring” the manufacturing of our own essential goods, rather than importing them from China.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the jobs report was “difficult” and, urging patience, pointed to all the income and business supports the federal government has provided to tide people over.

“We are there to support Canadians and we will continue to be until get through this, with income supports, with vaccines, with health measures, with the supports that people need,” he said.

But actual jobs while we continue to wait for the pandemic to be conquered? Not so much.

Business groups are pushing for the widespread adoption of rapid testing and contact tracing, so that public-facing firms can open up safely and bring their workforces back.

“We need to keep Canadians safe and working,” Nord says.

There’s no doubt that’s easier said than done. Contact tracing becomes cumbersome when case levels are high. And rapid tests can be clumsy and imprecise, leaving many provinces reluctant to deploy them widely. Nord also suggests more aggressive efforts to match job-seekers with job vacancies, and intense retraining programs for long-term unemployed people.

It’s clear that full-fledged recovery efforts can’t start until the pandemic is under control, and that’s certainly not imminent. In the meantime, we owe it to those same groups of unemployed people who are repeatedly pummelled by the pandemic to brainstorm some better answers.

Biding our time in the face of on-again-off-again vaccination schedules and new variants is not an answer.

Source: Heather Scoffield: Waiting for COVID-19 vaccinations is no way to help jobless Canadians

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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