Commentary,  COVID,  Employment & Unemployment

Encouraging Job Numbers, but a Long Way to Recovery

Here is analysis from Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford on today’s Statistics Canada Labour Force report:

The headline growth in jobs (almost 1 million) was very encouraging, much better than expected. By that measure, we’ve climbed almost halfway back out of the hole we fell into from February through April. 

But the next steps of job recovery will be much harder to achieve. The share of remaining unemployed Canadians expecting to go back to their former jobs has fallen substantially (just one-third now). We are experiencing a wave of second-order layoffs as companies permanently downsize because their market isn’t coming back. Recent examples of that (all in the hard-hit transportation sector) include Air Canada (20,000 layoffs), WestJet (3300 layoffs), Bombardier (2500 layoffs), and VIA Rail (1000 layoffs).

The official unemployment rate (12.7%) is still just the tip of the iceberg of true underutilization in the labour market. Counting people nominally employed but not working, and those who’ve given up looking, a more realistic measure of unemployment is 21-22%. That’s a lot better than April (when a realistic unemployment rate was more like 35%), but it’s still a historic crisis, and will require sustained leadership from government to rebuild employment for years to come.

I have argued that the recovery might be shaped like this: a quick but partial rebound as direct health restrictions ease, followed by long ‘bouncing along’ as more traditional demand-side impacts of a downturn are experienced.

(One Twitter follower called this shape a ‘Loch Ness Monster Recovery’!)

We will need sustained government leadership – akin to rebuilding an economy after a war (as I argued in the Policy Options journal) – to escape that ‘bouncing along’ stage of recovery, and continue working our way back toward true full potential.

In fact, I think we’re already getting close to the limit of the automatic job recovery we can expect from simple relaxation of health restrictions: that is, the end of that partial upward arm of the ‘V’. And as we have seen in the US, Victoria in Australia, & elsewhere, this monster will snap back to life when it sees any opening. So hard work is ahead.

This was a busy week for Canadian economic data, with today’s labour force report coming on the heels of Wednesday’s federal government ‘Fiscal Snapshot’. Most observers thought the Snapshot was bad news, because it forecast an enormous $343 billion deficit. But in fact, that big deficit is the flip side of the coin of today’s good jobs numbers. The two are clearly related: Without the enormous injections of government support (for household incomes, to keep workers on payrolls, to fight the health battle against COVID-19) that caused that big deficit, today’s job numbers would have been much more dire.

Today’s report also highlighted again the brutally unfair concentration of this recession on the backs of those who can least afford it. Job losses since February among workers earning under $16/hour (the bottom fifth of the labour market) have been almost 7 times worse than for other workers. Women, young workers, workers in temporary and insecure jobs (including gig workers), immigrants and migrant workers, have all also experienced disproportionate harm from the crisis. Ongoing policy responses (including both income supports and job-creation measures) must be focused on those hard-hit groups, or else we will experience a destructive polarization of well-being and opportunity that, among other consequences, will weaken our capacity to respond effectively to future public health emergencies.

Our recent Centre for Future Work report on Ten Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic Must Change Work for Good contained more detailed statistics on the unfair concentration of job losses among lower-wage and insecure groups of workers.

In sum, today’s report is encouraging. But it confirms we are still locked in a historic, brutally disequalizing economic and labour market crisis. It can be fixed. But we will need continued ambitious (and expensive) leadership from government to keep on repairing the damage.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.