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Minister sees 'glimmers' of confidence as B.C. jobless rate hits 13.4 per cent

VICTORIA — The jobless rate in British Columbia continues to climb, increasing to 13.4 per cent last month, but Finance Minister Carole James says there are signs of growing confidence.

Statistics Canada labour data for May show the province created 43,300 jobs last month, despite losing 353,200 jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a widespread economic shutdown.

James said the increase reflects businesses bringing back employees in preparation for reopening as some public health restrictions were eased. She said the data was collected days prior to B.C.'s official restart on May 19, which saw the reopening of restaurants, hair salons, dental offices and other personal service businesses, such as physiotherapy clinics.

"The numbers came before the restart had actually begun, so I think, as I've been saying all along, we really need to watch the trend," James said at a news conference on Friday. "We see some glimmers of hope in this trend. But when you see the number of jobs that actually were created, it doesn't touch the loss of jobs, the huge number of loss of jobs over the time period."

The labour market continues to be volatile, with the heaviest jobs losses felt in the accommodation, retail, service and tourism sectors, said James, adding young people are especially hard hit, facing a jobless rate of 28.9 per cent.

"In total, we've seen 115,000 job losses since the pandemic began among youth."

The Ministry of Finance says B.C.'s current jobless rate matches the high unemployment numbers of the economic recession that gripped the province in the early 1980s. The province's unemployment rate topped at 15.7 per cent in May 1984.

James said regular meetings are underway between business and government leaders to make plans for B.C.'s economic recovery.

Part of the government's $5 billion pandemic action plan includes a $1.5 billion recovery fund to help various sectors of the economy rebuild, she said, while a 19-member economic recovery task force headed by Premier John Horgan is considering recovery initiatives.

Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the Business Council of B.C., said the latest job numbers indicate the province is on its way toward recovery and the government should move to implement both short-term and long-term strategies to rebuild from the COVID-19 fallout.

"If I was in government, I'd be looking at this through two different lenses," said Finlayson, whose business council is part of the premier's task force, which also includes the B.C. Federation of Labour and Vancouver Board of Trade.

"One, I would say, 'What can we do as a province to kick start this recovery?' which I think has now commenced," he said. "How can we re-employ as many people as possible as quickly as possible? There are things, I think, that can be done within the next six months."

Finlayson said the government should focus its short-term plans on starting as many parking, paving and repair projects as it can to get people working. It should also devote more effort to working with municipalities to build needed rental and low-cost housing projects, he said.

The business council is also considering proposing that the government cut B.C.'s seven per cent provincial sales tax to spur spending and development, said Finlayson.

"I think it's a worthwhile thing to explore as an option."

Finlayson echoed James, saying the creation of more than 43,000 jobs indicates the economy is starting to move forward, despite the increase in B.C.'s unemployment rate to 13.4 per cent.

"The May Labour Force Survey tells us that the employment market has bottomed out, the job market has bottomed out and we can look forward to some recovery, hopefully, over the bulk of the remainder of the year."

Opposition Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said the government should act now and develop a long-term plan to ensure B.C. can recover from a major recession.

"We are facing a huge recovery challenge that's going to need bold and brave action," Wilkinson said in a statement. "Far too many people are still out of work in our province. Many businesses are at risk of closing their doors for good."

Statistics Canada reported the national unemployment rate in May rose to 13.7 per cent, the highest level in more than four decades.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 5, 2020.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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