COVID-19 represents the largest labour market disruption in British Columbia’s history.
Uncertainty and fear among businesses, workers and customers about the pandemic affect how we grasp the new normal and move beyond the crisis. They will only resume their lives and work when they feel safe, and see very low-risk pathways back to commerce and work.
This will be tested by new outbreaks and waves of COVID-19.
Reopening of businesses in B.C.’s Restart Plan helps employers ensure the health and safety of workers and customers in a staged approach towards economic recovery. This won’t happen without government leadership and action on the workforce front with industry.
This effort needs to be immediate, comprehensive and strategic. Programs will need to be nimble, adaptable, easy to ramp up and down; include rapid response capacity and build on effective practices.
Existing programs must be adapted to this new reality and not be off-the-shelf stopgap, short-term wage subsidies, grants and income supports. Policies must build business and worker capacity for resilience.
Labour market impacts
The May 2020 Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey shows over 353,000 British Columbians have lost their jobs since February, mainly in the service-producing sectors (88 percent of the total); and 150,000 people have left the labour force.
After three months of the pandemic, these hardest hit sectors lost almost 315,000 jobs: accommodation and food services; other services (in high-touch personal services); retail and wholesale; transportation and warehousing; and construction.
International travel, mass event and tourism sectors have huge workforces seriously impacted and will take longer to reopen. That sector was responsible for 127,000 jobs in 2019, according to the B.C. Labour Market Outlook.
The unemployment rate in B.C. has increased to 13.5 percent from 5.2 percent in February. That includes youth (aged 15 to 24) unemployment ballooning to 29 percent.
Laid-off workers won’t return overnight; it could be years before we get back to ‘normal’ employment levels.
Some workers won’t go back over fear of the virus or because they have income support helping them stay idle.
Needed workforce strategies
This unprecedented dislocation of workers calls for a major, comprehensive long-term government strategy.That strategy must support workers and employers in changing business models and bring back workers.
The first workforce measures are those that mitigate worker fears – public health and safety.
Business, industry and worker groups need to continue working with each other, and with WorkSafeBC and government on implementing the Restart Plan.
Perhaps the most important employment measure might be a reliable COVID-19 testing, tracking/tracing/isolation program. In its May 27 ILO Monitor, the International Labour Organization suggests a public health rapid response to ‘micro-lockdowns’ that may shut down a business, school, hospital, etc., could be the most important pre-emptive workplace response to virus outbreaks.
The B.C. government must influence the fast-tracking approval of major and minor public infrastructure projects, including streamlining regulatory approvals. Other creative job creation measures are needed:
- Helping businesses to have an Internet presence and move to e-commerce.
- Enabling more businesses to move to remote work.
- Maintaining a reliable flow of temporary foreign workers for key industries.
- Recruiting more citizens into the Canadian Forces.
- Launching major youth employment and work-integrated learning programs.
- Ensuring B.C. has a significant cadre of test/track/trace public health workers.
Employers and governments have to consider the fear factor and not assume workers will easily come back during reopening phases. This must involve creative incentives and income supports to facilitate return-to-work, re-employment, redeployment, reskilling and upskilling, bridging to retirement and preparing for a new world of work.
Programs should be tailored to focus on the most impacted – youth, low-wage earners, service sector workers, women, older workers and others with barriers. We also need to place more value on essential work and improve the quality of employment.
Finally, as McKinsey & Company advises in Crushing Coronavirus Uncertainty, “Communicating clearly to citizens and employees about actions, timelines and expected outcomes is another critical factor. The more factual and forward looking your messages are, the faster the confidence will return – and the faster economic recovery can begin.”
With B.C. government leadership, leveraging federal support and a partnership approach with industry, we can maximize the return to business and employment in B.C. We can also reduce fear and uncertainty moving into the new normal, creating resilient, nimble enterprises.
Kerry Jothen, B.A., M.A., is principal of Human Capital Strategies and has 42 years of experience in human capital roles. HCS is one of the longest-standing independent strategic planning, workforce research and strategy development consultancies in B.C.