Opinion piece

We must protect workers from COVID’s second wave

The economic health of a country, like that of a household, depends on jobs, and Canada got 378,000 more of those in September.

We are three-quarters of the way back.

That’s such precious good news that we need to focus on making sure it’s not short-lived, undermined by a resurgence of the pandemic.

Canada’s biggest cities have changed dramatically since that employment data was gathered in the third week of September, with COVID-19 curtailing economic activity as it spikes in Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto and Pthe eel Region.

With Ontario announcing business restrictions Friday in the province’s COVID-19 hot spots, the prospect of losing the precarious employment gains of September looms large.

“The country is now faced with new virus cases clearly trending in the wrong direction, threatening to upend the labour market recovery and any momentum that was gained in September,” says CIBC economist Royce Mendes.

A big chunk of the job gains in September came from the hardest hit parts of the pandemic labour market. Accommodation and food services saw an increase of 72,000 positions in September. Manufacturing, was up 68,000. Arts and culture jobs rose by 56,000 positions.

Women, whose employment prospects were pummelled at the beginning of the pandemic, have made up for much of their lost ground.

But some of those sectors are still far, far away from operating at full steam, and they are the most at risk of being hit by the second wave. If schools close down sporadically or en masse, mothers will see another setback.

Bars, restaurants, hotels, large public events and anything that brings together people into proximity – as we saw Friday, those are all at the top of the list for regional closures as public health officials try to contain the spread of the virus.

“That is the right thing to do, but it imposes costs,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland stated Friday.

How do we make sure the same workers aren’t penalized yet again? The federal government went part way down that road with its big package of new measures last week, rejigging the rent subsidy for small businesses so that it’s more direct and effective and expanding small business loans.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also mentioned that the government is thinking about additional temporary supports that would be narrowly targeted at local businesses caught up in regional restrictions – a great idea if it comes quickly enough to deal with the rapid contagion.

Bridging businesses and employers is crucial, not just because we are all worse off when our local shops and restaurants fall apart.

Just as important is the boost of confidence that it can give those people who are still out of work or not getting enough hours to pay the bills.

If they give up on finding more work, poverty becomes entrenched, the labour market is uneven and shortchanged, and recovery becomes more difficult for all of us – something Canada’s top central banker has his eye on.

Confidence in the ability of the job market to recover is an essential ingredient in tiding us through the second wave, Tiff Macklem said in an interview this week.

“The first piece of confidence is about people’s health. People need to be confident that they can work, they can shop, they can do those things, they can have some fun – that they can do those things safely,” he said.

“That really comes down to a collective responsibility on the part of everyone to follow the guidelines of our public health officials.”

Where the bank comes in is ensuring the wheels of the economy keep turning, by keeping interest rates predictably low for the long haul.

“Beyond the public health issue, I think it’s important that Canadians have confidence that the economy is working; that the financial system is working; that the economy is recovering,” he said.

“If they don’t have a job, it’s definitely worth looking for a job. There will be jobs. And we’re committed to supporting that recovery, through the full length of that recovery, to get people back to work, and to get the economy back to where it was at the end of 2019 and to grow from there.”

In September, about 18.3 per cent of the workforce was either unemployed, underemployed or had given up their job search despite wanting more work.

Statistics Canada says that’s about half what it was in April, but still much higher than the 11.2 per cent measured in February.

We can’t afford to let that number climb back up again.

Heather Scoffield is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.