Economy adds 303,000 jobs in March

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the economy added 303,000 jobs in 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 COVID-19.

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 lockdowns 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.