Students struggle to find safe, stable jobs as unemployment rate rises

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By Christina Flores-Chan

In early January, second-year media production student Gus Cousins left a two-year tenure at his neighbourhood Canadian Tire in East Toronto. 

There were a variety of reasons for his resignation: from an understaffed schedule and irregular holiday season hours, to a six-table lunchroom in which only one person was permitted to work each table and 25 staff members were working eight-hour shifts. 

“Where were we supposed to eat if there was already someone at every table and it was cold outside?” Cousins asked. 

While he acknowledged the importance of COVID-19 safety measures, the store’s disorganized approach in enforcing them without proper communication or regard for their staff was his tipping point.

So Cousins began his search for opportunities with stable hours and job security, with a heart full of hope and a resume in hand. Now, one month and five unanswered applications later, Cousins remains unemployed. He is only one of 200,000 Canadians who became unemployed last month due to closures or capacity limits in retail stores. 

According to Statistics Canada’s January 2022 labour force survey, the national unemployment rate rose by 0.5 percentage points last month. Ontario took the hardest hit, making up 73 per cent of lost jobs as a modified lockdown was put in place to tame the Omicron wave. 

“If you look at the jobs that students tend to work, they’re exactly the jobs that have been hit by COVID-19, like retail or the food industry”

Youth between the ages of 15 to 24 were reported to be the most affected by unemployment, losing nearly 100,000 part-time jobs and 50,000 full-time jobs.

While the government does not consider full-time students in its reports of unemployment, Ryerson University sociology professor and labour movement expert Alan Sears said students in the workforce have been affected by the loss in jobs “at every angle.”

“If you look at the jobs that students tend to work, they’re exactly the jobs that have been hit by COVID-19, like retail or the food industry,” Sears said. “When you’re a student, you’re also always thinking about the relationship between your current employment and your future.”

“It’s a real whammy to their confidence about the future and their finances,” he said, in relation to students’ job confidence and concerns about their careers post-graduation.

And yet, as anxious as Cousins is to get back into the workforce, he said he would rather stay unemployed than go back to working in unstable conditions that compromised his mental health and happiness.

“I was coming home from shifts irritated and annoyed,” he said. “It was ruining my night and my ability to work on school. If I could go back in time, I’d have quit all over again.”

Choosing not to work under certain circumstances was another factor that played into January’s labour force survey. 

Canada’s unemployment rate is calculated by dividing the number of people who are actively looking for work but currently don’t have a job, by the total labour force (the number of people over the age of 15 who classify as either employed or unemployed). The accuracy of the result relies on job availability as well as the assumption that people who are out of a job are attempting to get back into the workforce. 

Therefore, an unemployed person who has given up searching for work falls under neither the unemployed nor the employed and is no longer counted as part of the total labour force.

Last month, the labour force participation rate dipped 0.4 percentage points, to 65 per cent, with the largest decline being seen in young women between ages 15 to 24, who dipped 2.1 percentage points.

Jared Brown-Rodrigues, a third-year criminology and urban planning student at the University of Toronto, works as a host at King Taps, an upscale sports bar in the financial district. He said most of his coworkers are young women and, at times, dealing with customer frustrations about COVID-19 restrictions can feel like a safety risk.

“The other hosts often don’t feel comfortable talking to a six-foot guy who’s yelling about mask mandates,” Brown-Rodrigues said. “Whereas I am a six-foot guy, so it’s easier for me to step in.”

“We are all frustrated, and that frustration shouldn’t be pointed at workers. We should be more considerate of everybody and their situations”

Sears said another reason for the drop in participation in the workforce is simply due to the temporary layoffs and the lack of job opportunities during severe restrictions.

But the minute the restaurant opens, Sears said there may be hesitation in returning to work. “Especially if you’ve been receiving a government relief benefit for a period of time or you’re reassessing the quality of your workplace, combined with the reduced hours you’ll have, you might reconsider going back.”

Sears said he believes the fatigue and doubt that students are experiencing surrounding the workforce is temporary, however.

“I don’t think students have much ability to stay out of the labour market for long, and so they’ll be pushed back in when there are openings for them,” Sears said. 

Armen Zargarian, a third-year sport media student and bartender at Leslieville’s Nodo, is one such employee that returned to work for financial reasons, despite his reservations about its low job security risks with ongoing restrictions. 

CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) helped me stay afloat when restaurants closed,” Zargarian said. “Now restaurants have closed how many more times since then? And CERB is just not there anymore.”

Sears said he also wishes that, as a lesson to be pulled from the hardships that youth in the workforce have dealt with over the past two years, the labour market can be transformed into a space where workers’ concerns are not only voiced but heard.

“My hope is that students will come back from this saying, ‘We’re never going to go through this again, and nobody else should have to,” Sears said. “‘We’re willing to work hard, but we also need the kinds of security and returns that make it viable for us. And we’re tired of the non-viable existence.’”

For now though, while the pandemic continues, Brown-Rodrigues said a little bit of empathy and kindness can go a long way.

“The person you’re yelling at at the front desk could just be working to even afford to pay rent,” he said. “We are all frustrated, and that frustration shouldn’t be pointed at workers. We should be more considerate of everybody and their situations.”

And to the unemployed, the employed and everyone else, Sears urges collective strength and understanding. “We need each other right now because we are our source of strength in this situation.”

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