Quebec's economy is roaring back to life after a year of closures, restrictions and curfews, according to economists at the major banks.
Finance Minister Eric Girard will table a budget on Thursday, and they say he can expect GDP growth of at least six per cent in 2021. But the recovery has been wildly uneven so far.
Job losses remain concentrated among low-income earners. Employment is down nearly 12 per cent for young people and job growth has stalled for immigrants.
As Quebec gets set to begin erasing a $15-billion deficit caused by the pandemic, there are concerns the inequalities exposed during the last year will get permanently ironed into the social fabric.
"It's still very difficult. There are a lot of people who still have no jobs, who are going through a lot," said Mayte Saucedo, who operates Twins Foundation, a small non-profit that delivers food and other goods in disadvantaged neighbourhoods around Montreal.
"It's not only financial. It's emotional and physical. People are desperate after going up and down for a year."
Saucedo, a 32-year-old single mother, started gathering food donations shortly after she lost her job in a dentist's office last March.
She was quickly overwhelmed by both the demand and the outpouring of support. She had to use a friend's hair salon to store donations, and often worked around the clock to deliver food baskets.
Though she has since returned to work, Saucedo decided to formalize her charity efforts, and register her non-profit. Much of her time now is spent helping out in Montréal-Nord.
The neighbourhood has been hit hard by the pandemic. It has a high concentration of essential workers, and housing is often cramped. Infection rates are routinely among the highest in the province.
At the outset of the crisis, community groups and engaged citizens responded quickly to compensate for gaps in Quebec's social safety net.
Along with food drives, they collected laptops for children trying to learn at home and organized for people to get tested when, initially, no clinics were opened in the neighbourhood.
"They helped families deal with urgent needs," said Isabel Heck, a researcher with the anti-poverty group Parole d'excluEs.
But after a year, Heck said, community workers are exhausted and their organizations have been taxed to the limit. Demand for their services, though, remains high.
"It's absolutely fundamental for the government to come up with a long-term plan for accessibility to things like technology and health care," Heck said.
Three lines of uneven growth
Unemployment in Quebec peaked at 17 per cent in April 2020, as the government imposed an eight-week lockdown to deal with the first wave of COVID-19 infections.
Except for January, when non-essential stores were closed for several weeks, unemployment has trended steadily downward and is nearly at pre-pandemic levels.
But the top-line numbers mask considerable upheaval among certain segments of the population.
By the end of 2020, employment was down nearly 20 per cent for people making less than $20 an hour, whereas employment increased by 9.5 per cent for workers making more than $30 an hour.
"There has been a rebound but the rebound has been more beneficial to higher income earners," said Elmer van der Vlugt, a researcher at l'Observatoire québécois des inégalités.
White-collar jobs, he pointed out, are easily adaptable to public health restrictions. Employment has recovered completely in industries like financial services, technology and real estate.
But industries where many women work, such as tourism, hospitality and retail, are still struggling. The recovery has been especially slow for younger women.
Employment rates for women between the ages of 15 and 24 are 14 percentage points lower than they were before the pandemic, compared to nine percentage points lower for men of the same age range.
And overall employment figures don't take into account women who have dropped out of the labour market because childcare has become too complicated amid repeated school closures forced by COVID-19 outbreaks.
"A lot of [single mothers] are pushing back their job search. They don't feel that with the restrictions, and [childcare] realities, it's the right time for them," said Antonella Talarico, who co-ordinates employment services at the YWCA in Montreal.
Of the positions that are available, many are what Talarico called "Plan B jobs." The pay is low, the hours inflexible.
The pandemic also appears to have widened the unemployment gap between Canadian-born and immigrant workers.
For Canadian-born workers in Quebec, the unemployment rate hit 7.1 per cent in February. It was 10.7 per cent for all landed immigrants and 15.5 per cent for recent immigrants.
"There is work available but not for everyone," said Amal Obaïd, who leads a team of employment counselors at the Côte-des-Neiges Job Search Centre.
Obaïd credits the provincial government for improving how it recognizes education and experience earned abroad. The problem, she said, is employers.
"They're afraid of the unknown. Stereotypes persist. The government has to do more to break them down," she said.
Making things fair
Girard has promised Thursday's budget will contain a plan for eliminating Quebec's $15-billion deficit within five years, as is required by the province's Balanced Budget Act.
He's also promised his deficit-reduction plan won't involve any tax increases. That's raised eyebrows among financial experts, many of whom are skeptical about whether he can meet that deadline.
Opposition parties say the only other way for the government to meet its goal is by cutting public services.
That prospect arrives at a critical moment in the fight against inequality. The pandemic itself fed off existing imbalances in the social system.
Now those who bore the brunt of the crisis risk being left behind as restrictions are lifted and economic growth gallops ahead, analysts said.
Earlier this week, as she prepared yet another food delivery for Montréal-Nord, Saucedo said she worries that government officials, at all levels, don't recognize how urgent the needs still are in the city's low-income neighbourhoods.
She wants political leaders to have a different set of priorities as the post-pandemic recovery gets underway.
"They're talking about making things fair for business," she said. "You need to make things fair for humans."