National unemployment rate hits new record even as economy adds jobs

OTTAWA — Canada's employment minister says the federal government is rethinking a key COVID-19 benefit so workers have more incentive to get back on the job, in an effort to maintain a surprising boost in job numbers from May.

Statistics Canada reported that the country got back 289,600 jobs in May — which mirrored a similar bump in the U.S. — after three million jobs were lost over March and April and about 2.5 million more people had their hours slashed.

Provincially, Quebec led the way, gaining 231,000 jobs as it became one of the first provinces to ease restrictions, doing so just before Statistics Canada collected data the week of May 10. Ontario was the only province with losses, albeit at a slower pace than in March and April.

Combined with more people reporting getting regular hours, the agency said Canada had recovered only 10.6 per cent of employment losses and absences related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday's jobs report showed the unemployment rate in May rose to 13.7 per cent, the highest level in more than four decades of comparable data. But that's because more people started looking for work — meaning the rate shouldn't be taken as a sign of underlying weakness, said CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes.

The unemployment rate is a measure of the people looking for work who can't find it, meaning it can actually decline if job-seekers give up, or increase as formerly discouraged seekers see new signs of hope.

Still, the monthly labour force survey showed that men gained back more jobs than women, resulting in a wider gender gap in employment losses as a result of COVID-19, and that the pandemic continued to disproportionately affect lower-wage workers.

To keep gains going, business and labour groups called for a revamp of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the employment insurance system.

The first cohort of recipients of the $500-a-week payment will max out their 16 weeks of benefits in early July. Some may qualify for employment insurance, while others may not have any work available, meaning significant drops in income that could hamper the path to recovery, said TD senior economist Brian DePratto.

The Canadian Labour Congress and Canadian Chamber of Commerce separately called for reforms to the decades-old EI system, which the Liberals determined early on in the crisis couldn't handle the influx of jobless claims.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough suggested all ideas are on the table when it comes to EI, and the future of the CERB.

"As we look into the months coming ... we've got a different goal in mind: People need to get back to work safely," she said at a midday press conference.

"So our thinking moving forward is how do we balance a need to continue to support workers, while not disincentivizing work?"

The most recent federal figures show 8.37 million people applied for the CERB, with $43.18 billion in payments as of June 2. Qualtrough said 1.2 million recipients no longer require it, although it wasn't immediately clear why.

The Canada Revenue Agency also said this week that almost 190,000 payments of wrongfully received benefits had been made as of June 3.

Economists had been watching the CERB numbers as a proxy for Friday's jobs report, which set up expectations for another round of job losses.

CERB figures will continued to be watched to track possible job losses and compare it to areas where there are signs of progress, said Brendon Bernard, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.

"The strength of this rebound is going to depend to a significant degree on what happens with layoffs," he said in an interview. "We could see some areas of the economy bounce-back as shuttered sectors reopen, but if layoffs continue, then it's going to be tough for net job gains to be particularly strong."

The total number of unemployed Canadians doubled from February to April, a surge driven by temporary layoffs that the vast majority of workers expected to last less than six months.

At the same time, there was a spike in the number of people who wanted to work but weren't actively looking for jobs, likely because the economic shutdown has limited job opportunities. People not actively seeking work aren't counted in unemployment figures.

The unemployment rate for May would have been 19.6 per cent had the report counted among the unemployed those who stopped looking for work — largely unchanged since April.

Statistics Canada said lower-wage workers recovered just over one-10th of the losses they experienced in March and April. But they continued to be a higher share of people working less than half of their usual hours.

Lower-wage workers were among the first- and hardest-hit during the shutdown, largely because they worked in industries like retail, restaurants and hotels that closed early in the pandemic.

Besides seeing less improvement generally compared with men, women with children under age six saw slower job gains than those with older children.

Rebounds were also weak for students and recent immigrants.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press