Ottawa-Gatineau's unemployment rate falls to 6.7% in December

But latest StatsCan data shows troubling signs as region's labour force continues to shrink
Parliament Hill winter

Ottawa-Gatineau bucked a national trend by posting modest employment gains in December, according to Statistics Canada ​– positive news that was tempered by data suggesting more and more local residents are giving up the search for work.

The National Capital Region gained 1,300 net jobs in December, StatsCan said Friday. That pushed Ottawa-Gatineau’s unemployment rate down to 6.7 per cent – its lowest mark since last March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to wreak havoc with the local economy.

But there were troubling signs in the agency’s labour market report. 

The overall size of the region’s labour force ​– which includes unemployed people who are actively looking for work ​– continued to shrink in December. It stood at just under 782,000, well below last January’s pre-pandemic total of about 822,000. StatsCan says the region has shed more than 56,000 net jobs since the beginning of 2020, when the unemployment rate was 4.3 per cent.

For the second month in a row, one of the region’s most powerful economic drivers also appeared to lose steam as 2020 drew to a close. 

The tech sector shed more than 3,000 jobs in December, employing 40,400 people in the region – the lowest total in two years. That follows a loss of 4,100 jobs in November after a stretch in which tech had been one of the few bright spots in Ottawa’s economy during the COVID-19 crisis as the shift to remote working and shopping triggered a surge in demand for networking, communications and e-commerce software.

Most other sectors of the local economy held fairly steady last month, with the hard-hit retail and accommodation and food services sectors showing strength in the run-up to the busy Christmas season.

Public-service sector gains

The retail sector expanded by 900 jobs in December, while accommodation and food services added 600 positions. But those gains could be short-lived as the region hunkers down in the face of stricter measures to control the spread of the coronavirus and consumers rein in spending after the holidays.

Meanwhile, the region’s No. 1 employer, the public-service sector, added 1,300 jobs in December. Other gainers included professional services (up 2,200 positions) and educational services (which grew by 1,800 jobs). Sectors that declined included heath care, which shed 1,100 jobs, and information, culture and recreation, which lost 1,000 positions.

Overall, the national jobs picture was grimmer than many analysts expected.

Canada posted its first monthly decline in jobs since April amid tightened public health restrictions in December, and economists warn the losses are likely to continue in January as the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

StatsCanada said the economy lost 63,000 jobs in December while the unemployment rate edged up to 8.6 per cent compared with 8.5 per cent in November.

“Due to both the continuing rise in virus cases to open the new year and the further curtailments of activity since the last survey, another month of job losses could be on the horizon in January,” CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes said.

“The weak jobs report, combined with the recent appreciation of the Canadian dollar, will put pressure on the Bank of Canada to ease monetary policy further.”

Statistics Canada said its report was a snapshot of labour market conditions for the week of Dec. 6 to 12. It noted that additional public health measures were put in place in many provinces after that period and would likely be reflected in its January labour force survey results.

Several provinces have also further extended COVID-19 restrictions as public health officials blamed holiday gatherings for a rise in infections.

'Rocky road' ahead

TD Bank senior economist Sri Thanabalasingam said the resurgence of the virus is hitting Canada hard.

“Sharp increases in caseloads and hospitalizations are leaving provinces with little choice but to impose or prolong restrictions on an economy that is but a shadow of itself,” Thanabalasingam wrote in a report.

“It will be a rocky road for the Canadian economy until vaccines can be widely distributed and normal life can resume.”

Mendes noted that when the restrictions began to ease last spring and summer, the rebound in the economy came quickly.

“The good news is that last summer we saw a pretty sharp snapback at a time when virus cases were low and public health restrictions were eased, so that should give people some optimism that after this rough patch is hopefully behind us, the economy can bounce back quite well in the short-term,” he said.

The job losses in December ended a national streak of monthly job gains that began in May, when initial restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the pandemic began to ease.

Full-time employment in December rose by 36,500, but there was a loss of 99,000 part-time jobs.

Statistics Canada said that total hours worked fell for the first time since April as they declined 0.3 per cent in December.

By April last year the COVID-19 economic shutdown had directly affected 5.5 million Canadian workers, including three million who had lost their job and 2.5 million who were employed but had experienced COVID-related absences from work.

The number affected was 1.1 million in December, including a drop in employment of 636,000 since February and 488,000 more Canadians who were employed but working less than half their usual hours for reasons likely related to COVID.

December employment fell in industries most directly affected by the new and continuing public health measures.

The number of jobs in the services-producing side of the economy fell for the first time since April as it lost a total of 74,000 in December. The goods-producing sector gained 11,300 jobs.

The accommodation and food services industry lost 56,700 jobs for the month, while the “other services” category, which includes hair salons, laundry services and other areas affected by public health measures, lost 30,800. The information, culture and recreation group lost 18,800.

However, the manufacturing sector gained 15,000 jobs in December, driven by an increase in Ontario.

The share of Canadians working from home was 28.6 per cent in December.

Financial data firm Refinitiv says economists on average had expected the report to show a loss of 27,500 jobs for December. The unemployment rate was expected to be 8.6 per cent.

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press