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Jobs report shows how work has changed

Employment gains in September brought Canada’s total employment back to the pre-pandemic level of 19.1 million, Statistics Canada announced last week. Total employment had fallen to 16.1 million in April 2020, two months after the pandemic struck.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/10/2021 (475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Employment gains in September brought Canada’s total employment back to the pre-pandemic level of 19.1 million, Statistics Canada announced last week. Total employment had fallen to 16.1 million in April 2020, two months after the pandemic struck.

In effect, it took Canada just two months to lose three million jobs in the first stages of the campaign against COVID-19. It then took 17 months of struggle and re-adjustment to recover the lost ground. Falling off the cliff was quick. Climbing back up was slow and painful work.

Since Canada’s population increased by 1.4 per cent during that period of collapse and recovery, we are not exactly back to where we started. And since some industries have fared worse than others, the world of work has been transformed almost beyond recognition by the pandemic experience.

Noah Berger / The Associated Press David Card, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in economics.

The virus seemed to be in retreat in most of the country this past summer, but still a quarter of the people who worked in Canada in September were working from home. Though some employers were starting to call employees back into their offices, working from home was as common last month as it had been a year earlier. The habit of remote work was proving tough to break.

Working mothers of young children were especially inclined to work from home. Fathers of young children also worked from home, but not to the same extent as mothers.

Employment in hotels and restaurants was still well below pre-pandemic levels. Restaurants have been re-opening, but many restaurateurs complain the employees they lost to the pandemic are not coming back to work.

The labour force survey figures suggest those employees have gone back to school, started a family or found work in other industrial sectors. It’s not just governmental income support programs that are keeping people away from restaurant work: people who used to cook or wait on tables have re-shaped their lives. If that is the case, the restaurateurs will face an uphill struggle to bring them back.

The surprising popularity of remote work and the surprising unpopularity of restaurant work point to ways the pandemic is changing Canada. This week’s Nobel Prize economics award for Canadian economist David Card points to a related change in the world of work.

The labour force survey figures suggest those employees have gone back to school, started a family or found work in other industrial sectors.

Mr. Card astonished his colleagues back in 1993 when he showed that a sharp increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey had no effect on the number of people employed in a wide range of fast-food restaurants in the state. Economists had previously taken for granted that a government-enforced pay increase would automatically lead employers to reduce the number of jobs in minimum-wage work.

The majority of economists at first doubted Mr. Card’s conclusions. Scholarly opinion soon shifted, however, so that by 2000, only 46 per cent of members of the American Economic Association said minimum wage laws increase unemployment.

Mr. Card’s New Jersey restaurant study did not prove all minimum wage increases in all circumstances have no effect on levels of employment. Employers of minimum-wage labour will usually object to paying more and will often warn that jobs will disappear — and sometimes they will be right. Some businesses can pass on cost increases to their customers and some cannot, depending on competitive conditions.

Canadians may have to get used to fewer restaurants than we had in the old pre-COVID-19 days, and more clerical and professional personnel working from home. They might learn to expect more frequent minimum wage increases if Mr. Card’s doctrines become orthodox opinion among economists and the makers of government policy.

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