COVID,  Employment & Unemployment,  PowerShare

Second Wave of COVID Job Losses Just as Unfair as the First

Commentary on January 2021 employment data by Jim Stanford:

With most of Canada fighting a bigger, deadlier second wave of COVID infection, labour markets in most provinces are suffering the consequences. Employment began to shrink in December. But jobs data for January released by Statistics Canada confirm that the economy is sliding into a second dip, to match the second wave of the pandemic.

Both the scale of job loss, and their painfully unfair distribution, are heartbreaking. And the new numbers reinforce findings from our first PowerShare report: 10 Ways the COVID Pandemic Must Change Work for Good. The worst impacts are being felt by workers in lower wage, insecure jobs. Thus the job losses resulting from the pandemic are disproportionately concentrated among vulnerable groups: youth, women, workers in precarious jobs, and racialized and indigenous workers. It will require powerful, focused efforts to protect these communities, improve both the quantity and quality of work, and repair the damage the pandemic is doing to Canada’s social and economic fabric.

Statistics Canada reported that 213,000 jobs were lost in January, following over 50,000 jobs lost in December. That pushes the labour market back to levels of employment, unemployment, and participation recorded in August. All of the progress made during last fall’s partial economic re-opening has now been lost.

And just like the first wave, the job losses are concentrated among those who can least afford it. Part-time workers accounted for all the lost jobs in January (full-time work actually grew slightly). Women lost work twice as much as men. Temporary jobs disappeared at a rate 7 times faster than for permanent jobs. Young workers (under 25) lost work at a rate 4 times faster than the overall average. This is reinforcing the unequal impacts documented in our 10 Ways report (see especially pp. 27-31).

The racial concentration of economic hardship mirrors the racial inequity of COVID infection. Unemployment rates among racialized communities are two times or more larger than for white workers. For example, Statistics Canada reported unemployment rates of 20% for Southeast Asian workers, 16% for black workers, and 16% for Latinx workers.

The concentration of precarious work among racialized workers explains both these terrible labour market outcomes, and the deadlier incidence of COVID among racialized communities. Racialized workers are much less likely to lack access to paid sick days, and are less likely to be able to work from home (an arrangement more common in well-paid professional and managerial jobs). This creates circumstances ripe for both contagion and job loss.

There are some Canadians who haven’t lost a dollar from this pandemic. Professional & managerial work, which is more easily transferred to home and less susceptible to immediate fall-out from the closure of retail and hospitality businesses, has actually grown through the pandemic. Some businesses, and those with stock market wealth, have actually profited. The growing divide between well-off and struggling Canadians, and the concentration of economic and health consequences in hard-hit communities, is untenable.

The January jobs carnage obviously reflects the second wave of COVID, and the necessary health responses to it (including restrictions on trading in many secotrs of the economy). Provinces which have controlled the contagion more successfully, have preserved more work. This confirms there is no “trade-off” between fighting COVID and supporting the economy: the latter depends on the former. So we must undertake continuing and aggressive measures to stop contagion.

But at the same time, supports for displaced workers and small business need to be continued and strengthened. Workers must be supported to stay way from work when health advice requires it – and that requires paid sick leave and generous income supports. Finally, we’ll need a sustained, powerful program of reconstruction to rebuild economic potential when this hard war against COVID is over. 

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.