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Ontario lost more than 355,000 jobs last year - the single largest annual decline on record - due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the province’s fiscal watchdog said Thursday.

In addition to the job losses, more than 765,000 Ontarians saw their work hours reduced, Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman said in a new report that looked at the impact COVID-19 and the public health measures to fight it have had on communities.

“This is a very different type of recession,” Weltman said. “We’ve seen a lot of people exit the labour force because a lot of them weren’t going to look for jobs in areas that have been hammered, or had other concerns about going back into a labor force while there was a pandemic in play.”

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The report concluded that unlike previous recessions, the hardest hit sector was accommodation and food services, with over 110,000 job losses.

With a requirement for close contact, jobs were lost on a faster pace compared to goods-producing industries, the report notes.

Weltman said young workers, aged 15 to 24, saw the largest increase in unemployment, with a jump to 22 per cent.

Peterborough, Ont., was the hardest hit community with approximately 8,400 jobs - or 13.5 per cent of total jobs - lost last year. It was followed by Windsor, Ont., which lost 18,700 jobs - or 10.9 per cent of total jobs.

Weltman said he is optimistic about the province’s prospect for economic recovery post-pandemic, but noted that much will depend on factors including the speed of the vaccine rollout.

“A lot of it’s going to depend on how comfortable people are about going back to normal or being in close contact with others,” he said.

Ontario has gone through two lockdown periods in the pandemic where public health measures have restricted business operations across the province.

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Most of the province came out of the second lockdown earlier this week, with a decision on the remaining hot spot regions expected Friday.

The government has introduced a number of measures to help businesses throughout the pandemic including hydro rate cuts and grants of between $10,000 and $20,000 to offset expenses.

Deputy Premier Christine Elliott said the government’s focus has been on protecting the health and safety of people in the province, but called the job losses “concerning”.

“We are confident that as we transition back into the framework and businesses are able to start up, even at a very low rate ... that this is going to have a significant impact,” she said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the job losses “devastating”.

She said the report should convince the government that it needs to help those most disproportionately impacted by pandemic.

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“Women, young people, racialized folks, I mean we know these folks are the ones that had the most precarious work in the first place,” she said. “They’re the ones that had the greatest brunt of the job losses as per the FAO report.”

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the report highlights the need for government to continue to provide support through the rest of the pandemic, but also to outline a recovery plan.

“The unemployment numbers are a real punch in the gut because those statistics are people and families that are struggling to get through this pandemic,” he said.

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