December lockdown was ‘the last straw.’ Job numbers show impact of new COVID-19 restrictions

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Nick Cassinath says he hasn’t paid himself since the beginning of novel coronavirus pandemic.

The owner of Northern Artists, a Toronto photo lab that’s been in business since 1979, says his shop has been hanging by a thread since COVID-19 first struck Canada back in March.

“The CERB completely saved us,” says Cassinath, who adds both he and several of his employees have received the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

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Those government paycheques — along with the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance, the first incarnation of Ottawa’s rent relief program — have kept the 40-year-old lab afloat, says Cassinath.

But when Ontario tightened COVID-19 restrictions once again amid rising case counts in December, it was “the last straw,” Cassinath says.

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Christmas is hands down the busiest time of year. I will do more in just the first three weeks of December than I will do in the next three months,” he says.

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While Cassinath believes those stricter measures were necessary, the timing was awful for any seasonal business that relies on the holidays, he says.

And now we’ll go into the three, four, five dead months of the year with rent and other responsibilities still coming out,” he says.

Canada’s December job numbers show the first signs of the impact that the second round of government lockdowns likely had on businesses like Cassinath’s and the workers they employ.

For the first time since April, Canada’s gradual jobs recovery went into reverse, with the economy shedding a net $63,000 during the last month of 2020, Statistics Canada said on Friday.

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Self-employed Canadians were especially hard-hit, the agency said. While the number of employees in both the public and private sectors held up, self-employment fell by 62,000 jobs last month, the data shows.

The decline was even steeper for part-time employment, which saw 99,000 positions disappear in the month, with workers aged 15 to 24 and those aged 55 and older bearing the brunt of the job losses.

At Northern Artists, Cassinath says he had been able to gradually increase hours for his staff before the second lockdown. But no one has been at the shop since Dec. 24, and the lab won’t re-open until at least Jan. 14, he says.

As of StatCan’s latest count in December, 1.1 million Canadian workers had either lost their job or were working on reduced hours, compared to 5.5 million in April. But the state of Canada’s labour market will likely get worse before it gets better.

While the December job losses likely reflect the effect of more provinces adopting stricter public health measures, they probably don’t capture the full impact of the second round of lockdowns. That’s because StatCan conducted its jobs survey in the second week of December, before the even tighter restrictions that came into effect in many jurisdictions during and after the holiday period.

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‘I had to adapt and expand’

Not every self-employed Canadian saw their business dry up in the second wave of lockdowns. In Vancouver, Marika Mousseau, a 29-year-old publicist, said in August she realized she would need to quickly diversify her client base away from the travel and hospitality industry.

Mousseau, who runs her own PR company, Marika Mousseau PR, says her biggest customers used to be travel agencies, hotels and other businesses in the tourism sector. In April she says her business was down at least 50 per cent, and she was forced to take CERB for a couple of months.

By the beginning of the summer Mousseau says she was back on her feet, largely thanks to local tourist activity in the B.C. area. But as fall approached with no sign of an end to the health emergency, she began to seek out clients in pandemic-proof industries.

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“It was really the food industry was really where I found a lot of success,” she says.

So far, business is holding up, Mousseau says, something she attributes at least in part to the fact the B.C. government hasn’t adopted COVID-19 as stringent as those enacted in Ontario and Quebec.

Still, Mousseau doubts she would have been able to pivot the way she did had the pandemic happened when she was just starting out in her career.

“If I think of myself, I don’t think I could have done what I’ve done at 23 or 24 not having the contacts and not having the experience.”

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