Calm before Omicron storm in December jobs data

·3 min read

Canada’s employment seas looked calm in December, according to data collected before the COVID-19 Omicron variant spread rapidly through Ontario and other provinces over the winter break.

There was a minor overall rise in employment, Statistics Canada reported on Friday, again led by core-age men and with growth concentrated in Ontario, which will likely serve as the watermark by which to compare the contagious but seemingly milder new variant’s impact on work with earlier versions of the virus.

Full-time employment rose by 123,000, keeping with an upward trend since June and almost doubling its push above pre-pandemic levels, while the number of people in part-time work declined by 68,000.

Part-time employment has been mostly flat since June and is at about the same level as it was in February 2020.

Omicron has since caused Premier Doug Ford's government to enforce virtual learning after the winter break, cancel elective surgeries, return to restrictions on gathering sizes, and close cinemas and museums and indoor sport facilities. Government officials talk about absenteeism rates of 20 or 30 per cent.

“The rapid spread of the Omicron variant and reimposed containment measures — including the closure of high-contact service sectors in Ontario and Quebec — mean employment will very likely fall substantially in January,” Nathan Janzen, a senior economist at RBC Economics, wrote in a note to clients about the report.

Youth and young workers make up a larger portion of the workforce in such industries, which also include the wholesale and retail trade, and information, culture and recreation.

Despite increasing by more than 100,000 in 2021, employment in accommodation and food services remained more than 200,000 below the pre-COVID level, with little growth since September, suggesting ongoing recruitment challenges.

Janzen expects the overall retreat to be followed by a similarly rapid recovery soon after, with short-term labour shortages even in industries where the modified stage two restrictions aren’t forcing closure but self-isolation and quarantine are limiting capacity.

Evidence suggests that the latest iteration of COVID-19 is milder in most cases than the previously dominant Delta strain, although it is still keeping hospital staff busy and large numbers of workers home either sick, isolating due to exposure or out of work that’s been closed down.

Employment in Ontario was up for the seventh straight month, adding 47,000 jobs in December for a total gain of 468,000 since May. The gains were mostly enjoyed by young and core-aged men finding work in the wholesale and retail trade and manufacturing.

Job growth in the Greater Toronto Area was flat for the month but is up 10 per cent since May.

The national unemployment rate fell in December for men in each of the three main age groups: 15 to 24 (-1.1 percentage points to 11.9 per cent); 25 to 54 (-0.5 percentage points to 4.6 per cent); and 55 and older (-0.4 percentage points to 6.3 per cent).

Among women, the unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 rose 1.7 percentage points to 9.6 per cent, while it was little changed for the other age groups.

The information, culture and recreation industry saw notable employment recovery in 2021, but it mostly occurred in the late summer and early autumn, returning to its pre-pandemic level in September.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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