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Lower-wage industries – a 3 Amigos restaurant seen here in Montreal on April 6, 2020 – will be 'over-represented' in job losses, the Conference Board said, led by about 444,000 affected positions in full and limited service eating places.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

More than three million Canadians have applied for jobless benefits and emergency income aid with the federal government since mid-March, the latest sign of historic levels of devastation in the labour market.

Government officials said Monday that 3.18 million people have applied for employment insurance and the Canada emergency response benefit since March 16. More than 794,725 Canadians filed for benefits on Monday alone, the launch day for CERB’s application system.

CERB is intended to capture workers affected by COVID-19 who aren’t covered by EI, such as the self-employed or those missing work because they’re caring for someone who is sick.

How to apply for EI and other COVID-19 emergency government income supports

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Once the damage is tallied, Canada’s job losses will likely be record-setting. The Conference Board of Canada on Monday said a combined 2.8 million jobs could be shed during March and April, equal to nearly 15 per cent of total employment.

“When you look at this in comparison to other recessions, I don’t think there’s anything like it,” said Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Ottawa-based think tank.

Lower-wage industries will be “over-represented” in job losses, the Conference Board said, led by about 444,000 affected positions in full and limited service eating places. Further, the recreation, accommodation and clothing store industries could all see cumulative job losses of more than 100,000 in March and April.

Over all, the Conference Board projects low-wage industries – where average weekly wages are 50 per cent or lower than the national average – will account for 34 per cent of job losses, versus their 14-per-cent share of total employment in 2019.

“For some of these industries, it’s going to be a longer haul before we see things return back to normal,” said Mr. Antunes, suggesting the restaurant and travel industries could be slow to rebound.

Canada will soon get a clearer sense of the devastation wrought on the job market.

Statistics Canada will release its labour force survey on Thursday, the first major data release that accounts for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey covers labour conditions from March 15 through 21, during which many businesses shut their doors and laid off workers as governments urged the public to practise social distancing.

“[Thursday’s LFS] is likely to be ugly, and quite possibly shatter not only the prior all-time job loss record but also far exceed the pace of U.S. job losses during the month in proportionate terms,” Derek Holt, head of capital markets economics at Bank of Nova Scotia, said in a client note.

Scotiabank has forecast a half million jobs were lost in March, Bank of Montreal has pencilled in a drop of 600,000 and Royal Bank of Canada sees a decline of one million. Dating back to 1976, the worst one-month decline for the LFS was roughly 125,000 in January, 2009.

Historic job losses have been hinted at in recent weeks. Between March 16 and 22, which largely overlapped with the LFS survey period, more than 900,000 Canadians filed for unemployment benefits, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

The April jobs report will likely show an even larger decline, economists say, given the acceleration in jobless claims.

“With broader swathes of the economy shutting down throughout the second half of [March], and likely to last at least through April, expect an even more precipitous dive" in April employment, said BMO strategist Benjamin Reitzes in a research note, adding that month’s decline could be “well over one million, perhaps even two.”

The Conference Board said employment should increase in May and “accelerate over the second half of 2020,” assuming social distancing rules are relaxed. However, “it will take time for Canada’s labour market to fully recover from this pandemic.”

Christopher Mio and Meghan Hoople found themselves jobless and wanting to help in the wake of COVID-19 isolation in Toronto. After flyering their neighbourhood with a free-of-charge offer, they received an outpouring of support and requests from people in need.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said Statistics Canada conducted its Labour Force Survey from March 15 to 21. In fact, Statscan asked about labour conditions during that time frame.

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