Ottawa-Gatineau jobless rate holds steady at 6.5% in March

Ottawa downtown
Stock image, for illustrative purposes only. (Photo by Philippe Beliveau on Unsplash)

Ottawa-Gatineau employers added nearly 8,000 new jobs to their payrolls in March as the region’s economy continued to pick up steam, Statistics Canada said Friday.

But those gains were offset by a corresponding jump in the number of people looking for work as the labour force grew by 8,200 individuals last month. As a result, the region’s unemployment rate held firm at 6.5 per cent, the agency said in its latest labour market report. 

The jobless rate remained at its lowest level since the start of the pandemic. Ottawa-Gatineau’s economy has been steadily adding jobs since last summer, and the unemployment rate is now a full three percentage points lower than it was at the height of business shutdowns last June.

Since then, the region has gained more than 60,000 jobs, Statistics Canada says. At the same time, Ottawa-Gatineau’s labour force has also grown by more than 40,000 as job-hunters resumed their search for work. (Statistics Canada’s data is based on a three-month rolling average.) 

But whether that recovery will continue in the short term remains to be seen after stricter measures were recently imposed in an effort to rein in the growing third wave of COVID-19, shuttering many businesses in the retail, hospitality and service sectors that had been showing some of the biggest bouncebacks.

Employment got a bump last month even though the region’s largest employer, the public service sector, shed more than 4,000 jobs and another key engine of the economy, the tech industry, remained flat at 43,800 positions.

Retail sector gains 4,800 jobs

The beleaguered retail sector continued its resurgence in March, gaining a net 4,800 positions, while the construction sector added 2,600 new jobs. Other net gainers included professional services (up 1,700) and educational services (1,200).

Meanwhile, the health-care sector suffered a net loss of 2,000 jobs, while the accommodation and food services industry was down a net 1,900 positions.

Nationally, Statistics Canada says the economy added 303,000 jobs in March as employment increased, including gains in sectors hardest hit by public health restrictions.

There were about 95,000 more retail jobs for the month, fully recouping losses sustained in January lockdowns.

There was also an employment bump of 21,000 in the accommodation and food services sector, which Statistics Canada noted still leaves that sector the furthest from a full recovery at 24.4 per cent, or 298,000 jobs, below pre-pandemic levels.

Notable gains were also seen in health care, construction and educational services. That last gain was partially a result of Ontario, which led employment gains overall, moving its March break for schools to next week in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

National employment figures released Friday morning outpaced the 259,000 gain seen in February that, at the time, whipped past expectations.

The March increase puts employment 296,000 shy of the pre-COVID level in February 2020, or roughly 1.5 per cent of pre-crisis levels.

It also sent the unemployment rate to 7.5 per cent, down from 8.2 per cent in February, bringing the rate to a pandemic-era low.

“Helped by recent decisions to ease COVID-19 related restrictions, the Canadian labour market followed up a strong February with another extraordinary showing in March,” said TD senior economist Sri Thanabalasingam.

“While this brought employment even closer to its pre-pandemic level, the next couple of months could prove challenging for Canada’s labour market.”

But there was also a note of concern underneath the eye-popping employment figures because of renewed shutdowns this month in the face of a third wave of the pandemic that could leave high-touch sectors that saw gains in March facing losses this month.

“Indeed, much of the hiring over the past couple of months has occurred in the sectors hardest hit by shutdowns,” wrote CIBC senior economist Royce Mendes. “But now, with stricter public health orders again necessary to curb the virus’ spread in many parts of the country, there’s reason to believe at least some of this progress will be reversed in the near-future.”

The jobs numbers come just over a week before the federal Liberals release a budget where employment levels are expected to be used as a gauge for planned stimulus measures.

​– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press