46,000 jobs and counting: COVID-19 takes its toll on Ottawa-Gatineau’s economy

Ottawa skyline

The economic fallout from measures aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19 came into sharper focus on Friday as Statistics Canada reported that the region’s unemployment rate jumped to its highest rate in nearly four years.

Ottawa-Gatineau shed 29,200 jobs last month, accelerating a downward trend that started in late 2019. That pushed the region’s unemployment rate to 6.9 per cent, up from 5.1 per cent in March. Prior to the pandemic, the local jobless rate stood at 4.3 per cent.

Friday’s figures fail to tell the full jobs story. Statistics Canada uses a three-month rolling average when presenting its local employment numbers. This means that the new job numbers include data from February, March and April – a period that includes several weeks in which the economy was still firing on all cylinders.

The number of people working locally fell by 29,200 individuals last month. That’s on top of the 17,200 positions shed by local employers in March as businesses started to close their doors to limit the spread of COVID-19, bringing the total number of jobs lost during the pandemic to more than 46,000.

As in March, the losses were heaviest in the hospitality and retail sectors. The accommodations and food services industry shed 8,700 jobs, while wholesale and retail trade employers collectively contracted by 5,800 positions.

Two of the region’s most closely watched sectors appear to be holding steady. Tech employers actually added 700 jobs last month. And while there were 2,000 fewer people working for the federal government in April compared with the previous month, the region’s largest employer continues to staff more people than it did at the end of 2019.

Nationally, the Canadian economy lost almost two million jobs in April, a record high, as the closure of non-essential services to slow the spread of COVID-19 forced businesses to shutter temporarily.

The loss of 1,993,800 jobs comes on top of more than one million jobs lost in March, and millions more having their hours and incomes slashed.

Statistics Canada says the unemployment rate soared to 13 per cent as the full force of the pandemic hit compared with 7.8 per cent in March.

It was the second-highest unemployment rate on record as job losses spread beyond the service sector to include construction and manufacturing.

Economists on average had expected the loss of four million jobs and an unemployment rate of 18 per cent, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

The unemployment rate would have been 17.8 per cent had the agency's labour force survey counted among the unemployed the 1.1 million who stopped looking for work – likely because the COVID-19 economic shutdown has limited job opportunities.

In all, more than one-third of the labour force didn't work or had reduced hours in April, an “underutilization rate” that was more than three times higher than in February before the pandemic struck.

– With reporting by the Canadian Press