Canada lost a record-setting number of jobs in March with the damage set to worsen as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the economy and triggers steep layoffs, particularly for women, young people and lower-wage workers.
Statistics Canada said Thursday that slightly more than one million people lost their jobs in March, easily the largest one-month decline in data that go back to 1976. The unemployment rate climbed to 7.8 per cent, from February’s 5.6 per cent, marking a record increase.
Historic upheaval was widely anticipated in Thursday’s report. Statscan surveyed households on labour conditions between March 15 to 21, reflecting an early wave of company closings and layoffs.
Job losses, however, don’t cover the full extent of disruption. Another 2.1-million people worked less than half their usual hours, or were away from work, bringing the total number of affected workers to 3.1 million. Total hours worked across all industries plunged by 15 per cent.
Further, worse results are likely coming. Since Statscan’s survey period, millions of additional Canadians have applied for emergency financial assistance with the federal government.
“March is just the start, and April will be worse – potentially significantly worse,” said Douglas Porter, chief economist at Bank of Montreal.
Thursday’s report showed sweeping damage to the labour market, although some areas felt deeper shocks.
As expected, the accommodation and food services industry was hit hard, with nearly 300,000 people losing their jobs, a decline of 24 per cent. The information, culture and recreation industry lost 13.3 per cent of its employment, while educational services dropped 9.1 per cent.
All told, employment in the services sector plunged by 6.3 per cent, compared with a 1.2-per-cent decline for the goods-producing sector. The manufacturing and construction industries held up relatively well, Mr. Porter noted, which is not usually the case in recessions.
“Just in terms of the job losses by industry, it’s like the world’s been turned on its head,” he said.
Statscan pointed to a striking gender divide in Thursday’s numbers. Women between 25 and 54, the core working ages, lost more than twice the jobs (298,500) as men in the same age cohort (127,600). Nearly one-fifth of employed women in that age bracket lost all or the majority of their usual work hours in March, compared with 13.9 per cent of core-age men.
“A lot of those women are going to be staying home even longer, because somebody has to watch the kids and [women] tend to take on those primary caregiver roles,” said Tammy Schirle, an economics professor at Wilfred Laurier University.
Statscan also noted workers in “less secure, lower-quality jobs” were more likely to experience job losses in March. For instance, the number of employees in temporary jobs decreased by 14.5 per cent, compared with a drop of 5.3 per cent for those with permanent jobs. Employment for lower-paid employees – those earning less than two-thirds of the 2019 median hourly wage – declined by 15.8 per cent, compared with a 4-per-cent drop among higher-paid employees.
Young workers endured a brutal month. The number of employed people aged 15 to 24 dropped by nearly 400,000, or 15.4 per cent, with the decrease almost entirely in part-time work. The youth unemployment rate is now 16.8 per cent, the highest in more than two decades.
Jobless rates don’t account for the entirety of damage. For Statscan’s Labour Force Survey, the unemployed are considered to be those who are available for work and have looked for employment in the past four weeks, along with those who have been temporarily laid off and expect to rejoin their employer. It also includes those who are set to start a job within four weeks.
Given those stipulations, many workers affected by COVID-19 are not officially considered unemployed. For instance, a jobless parent who’s suddenly handling home-school and daycare duties, and thus isn’t available to work, is not considered unemployed. Nor is the jobless person who’s stopped looking for work because their industry has stopped hiring.
Instead, those workers are classified as not in the labour force. In March, their ranks increased by 644,000 people. Nearly 220,000 people were not in the labour force but had worked earlier in March and still wanted a job. If they were counted as unemployed, the jobless rate would increase to 8.9 per cent.
At the provincial level, Ontario experienced the largest job losses in raw numbers, with the number of employed people declining by about 403,000, followed by Quebec at 264,000 and British Columbia at 132,000.
The April jobs report, released in early May, is widely expected to show brutal results. Since March 16, more than five million Canadians have applied for financial assistance with the federal government, hinting at another round of record job losses.
Ottawa recently unveiled a program that will subsidize wages for eligible companies by up to 75 per cent, to a maximum of $847 a week per employee, aimed at dampening layoffs and encouraging rehiring. Mr. Porter said the program “might make a big difference.”
However, “I don’t know if that can really stem the tide [of layoffs] entirely,” he said.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe.