Canada adds 259,000 jobs in February, unemployment at lowest rate since March 2020

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Canada added 259,000 jobs in February, recovering most of the jobs it lost in the previous two months.

A woman checks out a jobs advertisement sign during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto last April. The country added 259,000 jobs in February 2021.(Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Canada added 259,000 jobs in February, recovering most of the jobs it lost in the previous two months during tighter pandemic restrictions, Statistics Canada said on Friday.

The unemployment rate dropped from 9.4 per cent to 8.2 per cent, the lowest rate since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

The increase in employment is the biggest since September and handily exceeded analysts' expectations of 75,000 added jobs and an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent.

"February marked 12 months of unprecedented changes in the Canadian labour market resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic," the agency's Labour Force Survey says.

Compared with 12 months earlier, there were 599,000 fewer people employed and 406,000 more people working less than half their usual hours. That puts employment 3.1 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

Both part-time and full-time work increased, and long-term unemployment (27 weeks or more) fell by 9.7 per cent from a record high of 512,000 in January.

A closed sign is seen on Queen Street West in Toronto last March. Statistics Canada said February's improving numbers were largely influenced by the easing of pandemic restrictions in certain areas.(Laura Howells/CBC)

"A lot of this is the January numbers reversing, but there were also some full-time jobs being added, which shows improvement in the economy," said Andrew Kelvin, chief Canada strategist at TD Securities.

"It's a very positive set of numbers and suggests a quicker recovery for the broader economy."

Gareth Watson, an investment adviser at Richardson Wealth, said it's encouraging that jobs are still being created during one of the country's worst economic downturns. At the same time, he said it's important to note that employers are still very hesitant to bring back workers at full wages and full hours.

"You can get a job but only be working half the hours that you had before, but you still get counted as a new job," he said. "So we have to think about that as well. I just think it's the confidence of employers out there that needs to return

Among workers who worked at least half their usual hours, the number working at locations other than home increased by 600,000 as schools and other workplaces reopened in several provinces, the agency said.

Statistics Canada separately reported strong production capacity and factory sales data and said Canadians continued to add to their personal savings and net worth at far higher rates than before the pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trumpeted the jobs numbers during a COVID-19 update in Ottawa on Friday but said "let's not forget there's still too many people for whom things continue to be really tough."

He said the government is here to get people through the crisis and pointed to the Canada emergency wage subsidy and the Canada emergency rent subsidy.

Gains concentrated in lower-paying jobs

Statistics Canada said February's numbers were strongly influenced by the easing of pandemic restrictions in such provinces as Quebec, Alberta, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, as well as parts of Ontario.

The gains were concentrated in Ontario and Quebec and in jobs that pay $17.50 an hour or less, and in industries that were most affected by restrictions in January: retail, accommodation and food services.

One person in those sectors who's struggling, though employed, is Stacy Davidson.

The bartender from North Vancouver told CBC News Network he is working three jobs yet makes less than half of what he made before the pandemic. The number of patrons allowed inside his bar has been reduced, and closing time has been moved to 10 p.m.

"People don't really have enough time to get substantially intoxicated enough to the level where they actually want to tip generously," he said.

He said he's been forced to pull back, pushing his dream of owning his own bar down the road three years, and even eliminating internet at his house.

Young women disproportionately affected

The sectors most affected by restrictions also disproportionately affect women.

There were 111,000 fewer women working in retail than 12 months earlier, while employment among men in that sector has changed little.

Statistics Canada noted that women are more concentrated in public-facing jobs such as sales reps and sales support workers, which are more affected by public health measures.

While women aged 24 to 54 did relatively well in February, with employment increasing 1.3 percentage points to December levels, year-over-year losses among young women, especially teenagers, were nearly double those seen among young men.

The employment rate among Indigenous women was down 6.8 percentage points year-over-year and was unchanged for Indigenous men.

Bank of Canada likely to back away from bond purchases

So too is the Bank of Canada monitoring employment, noting the uneven impacts of job losses in its reasoning this week for holding its key policy rate at 0.25 per cent.

Analysts said the blockbuster job gain shows that excess capacity is closing far faster than the Bank of Canada's expectations.

"I would be surprised if they don't signal fairly soon that they are starting to back further away from their bond purchase program," said Derek Holt, vice-president of capital market economics at Scotiabank.

The Bank of Canada has made clear that even as other parts of the economy rebound, it remains very concerned about the high number of people still out of work because of the pandemic.

Bank of Canada deputy governor Lawrence Schembri said on Thursday that if Canadians start spending the massive nest egg they have amassed during the coronavirus pandemic, it could "meaningfully affect" economic growth.

The Canadian dollar, meanwhile, strengthened to 1.2512 to the greenback, or 79.92 US cents, after the data.

With files from Reuters and The Canadian Press

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