Huge job losses in B.C. indicate a ‘hard road ahead’: finance minister

Huge job losses in B.C. indicate a ‘hard road ahead’: finance minister
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VANCOUVER — The retail, food and restaurant sectors are calling for more help in the wake of new job numbers that show B.C. lost about 264,000 jobs in April.

New unemployment data from Statistics Canada shows B.C. lost almost 400,000 jobs in March and April combined.

Almost half those job losses were in food services and the wholesale and retail sectors, Finance Minister Carole James said during a conference call on Friday.

“I mentioned when I presented the numbers in March that we expected the numbers would be worse in April,” she said. “As predicted, today’s data shows a staggering number of people are feeling the economic impact of COVID-19.”

James wouldn’t discuss what the pandemic’s impact has been on B.C.’s budget, saying the province’s first quarterly report will shed greater light on the damage.

She noted that when the province announced its budget in February, the unemployment rate stood at five per cent. It was at 11.5 per cent in April.

“I think we’ve got a hard road ahead,” she said. “I don’t want to sugar coat it.”

The B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association says it conservatively estimates that 25 to 35 per cent of its industry may not reopen.

“We hope that’s where the target is and it’s not higher,” said Ian Tostenson, the association’s president.

Rent remains one of the biggest obstacles to restaurants across B.C. reopening, with Tostenson arguing rent relief should be extended to six months. That would help as restaurants begin to slowly restart and deal with reduced capacities and enhanced health measures.

“We can’t live under capacity restrictions forever, there won’t be an industry left,” he said.

Greg Wilson, the B.C. director for the Retail Council of Canada, agrees with Tostenson’s assessment.

The discretionary retail sector, which includes businesses ranging from toy stores to clothing shops, face more severe challenges than many understand, he said.

The council supports the food and restaurant association’s call for more rent relief, particularly in high-rent cities like Vancouver.

“For that discretionary retail sector, this crisis is going to last until there’s a vaccine,” Wilson said. “That’s a longer term issue than a few months.”

The province rolled out its restart plan on Wednesday, which would allow certain restaurants, health salons, retail outlets and museums to reopen in mid-May.

James said ministers are working with businesses in their respective portfolios to ensure their needs are being heard and addressed.

This report was first published by the Canadian Press on May 8, 2020.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

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