Skip to main content

People move restaurant tables in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. When restaurants reopen, it’s not just servers and kitchen workers who will be potentially vulnerable to virus transmission.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

University of B.C. economists have developed a new analytical tool that calculates the risks and benefits of reopening different sectors of the B.C. economy.

And it has more than a few lessons about which ones need to take more precautions because of potential risks in the current pandemic, says Henry Siu, a professor in the Vancouver School of Economics who was on the team that developed the searchable database.

The vulnerable jobs are not always exactly where people might guess, said Prof. Siu, whose team is already getting calls from elsewhere in Canada from people who want to adapt the tool for their regions. The database details the risks of particular types of work, the number of jobs those sectors had and how many they lost, how important their work is to the economy, and the demographic characteristics of the people employed in them.

“If a sector is brought back, you know which parts to focus on with this,” Prof. Siu said.

Hairstylists work almost as closely with customers as nurses or doctors do with patients, and many of them live in households with people over age 60, according to the tool.

“But the number of jobs is small and not central to the functioning of other parts of the economy,” he noted. Those are factors to consider when governments determine what should reopen, along with the need for extra-stringent safety precautions for such jobs.

Construction workers, it turns out, are more likely to live with people who work in health care than many other sectors, with about a fifth of construction-worker households fitting that combination.

And, when restaurants reopen, it’s not just servers and kitchen workers who will be potentially vulnerable to virus transmission, Prof. Siu said.

“It’s the supervisors and floor managers. They’re the touch point,” he said, noting how much they are required to move around to all parts of a restaurant operation.

Prof. Siu said such close analysis is needed in every industry for all jobs to ensure the best possible safety measures.

Researchers, who consulted with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and other provincial branches while they developed the tool, looked at the characteristics of 300 occupations, along with household demographics, to assess the risk factors.

They evaluated Statistics Canada’s job descriptions for issues like proximity to customers, patients, or other workers, as well as the household conditions of various employees and assigned them a risk level.

According to the tool, insurance underwriters in the region are more likely to take transit to work (45 per cent) than any other group, followed by people who teach or do research at post-secondary institutes (44 per cent). That’s a factor employers will need to think about if those people return to their offices, the analysis suggests.

The tool also shows which sectors have the most people with low incomes – personal and laundry services and bartending – whom governments might want to help get back to work as soon as possible, and how many live in crowded households: agricultural workers, meat and poultry factory workers, and glass cutters.

That last one helps explain outbreaks of COVID-19 related to people working in those occupations, including one at a glassworks factory in the Lower Mainland.

The tool is available at https://covid19.economics.ubc.ca/, and includes data on which sectors saw the biggest job losses and have the potential to bring the most back if safety precautions are done correctly.

The accommodations and food sector was the biggest loser, with 40,944 jobs that disappeared in February and March, while the retail sector was close behind at 39,152. The arts/entertainment/culture world lost 14,081 jobs, and construction was next, with 10,788, followed by 9,835 in education.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.