Canadian Chamber’s Leah Nord appears before House Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities

On May 28, Leah Nord, Senior Director of Workforce Strategies & Inclusive Growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, appeared as a witness before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) to discuss the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She also addressed the process surrounding reopening, recovery, and a return to the ‘new normal’.

Read Ms. Nord’s opening statement below:

Thank you Mister Chair, Vice Chairs, and committee members, it is a pleasure to be here before you this evening. My name is Leah Nord, and I am the Senior Director of Workforce Strategies and Inclusive Growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, working in the areas of skills, the future of work, immigration, employment standards and practices, diversity and inclusion. My comments today will focus on these areas within my portfolio, speaking not only to the crisis period, but the reopening, recovery and return to the ‘new normal’ that is happening at different timings and stages across the country.

The Canadian Chamber is the voice of Canadian business. We represent 200,000 businesses across the country, across sectors and across sizes. Our network consists of 450 Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade, alongside over 400 corporate members, and an equal number of association members.

Through the crisis, we believe that one of the most impressive aspects of the response, and what will hopefully be one of its most significant legacies, is the #teamcanada approach that has been taken.

The centrepiece of the Canadian Chamber’s response during the crisis has been the Canadian Business Resilience Network. It is supported by government, in partnership with our network and members, as well as our business association partners. This inclusive and bilingual campaign, including a microsite, has proven to be a successful, centralized and authoritative source of information, best practices, toolkits and thought exchange, allowing the business community to prepare, persevere and prosper.

Looking more specifically to the labour force, and to seemingly state the obvious, this crisis has had a detrimental effect on Canada’s workforce.

Through the April 2020 Canadian Chamber / Statistics Canada Canadian Survey on Business Conditions (CSBC) we know that Canadian businesses have undertaken many efforts to support their employees through the crisis and keep them connected to the labour force. Innovations include remote work, e-commerce and working sharing. Nonetheless, we also learned through the survey that 40.5% of businesses have laid off staff and 38.1% of them reduced staff hours or shifts. Stats Canada will be back in the field next week with a second round of the survey and we look forward to gaining further insights and seeing if/how attitudes and practices have shifted as the crisis has continued.

Further, March and April 2020 Labour Force Survey data indicates that since the start of the crisis three million Canadians have lost their jobs (90% temporarily), and more than 8 million have applied for the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit and Canada Emergency Student Benefit.

Not surprisingly, in the initial phases of the crisis, the most significant job losses were in accommodation and food services industry. Initially, populations most affected in this first phase include youth, women and those working in less secure, lower-quality jobs. Goods- producing sectors were most affected in April, particularly manufacturing and construction. Sectors including tourism, wholesale and retail trade, education and recreation have also experienced employed declines of up to 35 percent.

The crisis has compounded preceding downturns in sectors such as oil and gas and forestry, and pivots in sectors such as manufacturing and mining. It has also highlighted the needs in transport and warehousing, health human resources and food retail, underscoring the importance of the country’s essential workers.

As I turn my comments to the reopening and recovery periods, I will underscore that many business across the country – across sectors and across sizes – are still very much in crisis mode. For example, Monday is June 1 and even in light of recent announcements such as Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance for small businesses, many members are wondering if/how they are going to make the rent this coming month.

Specific to the re-opening period, the Canadian Chamber has developed a series of recommendations, including the importance of leaning on international best practices and ensuring interprovincial alignment. We also believe that although emergency, temporary financial support programs have been needed and in fact crucial to help some companies and individuals stay afloat through the pandemic, there is also a need to ensure sustainable public finances.

We also appreciate that there continues to be more questions than answers right now. The crisis has shown the best policy is made when it widely draws upon the advice of civil society, including businesses both large and small across sectors. The conversations need to start now in a structured manner to ensure that governments at all levels are receiving the best possible advice to minimize unintended consequences. An excellent example of this is the creation and composition of the federal government’s

COVID-19 Supply Council, which includes representatives from business, labour, many sectors and non-profits, and includes the voices of academics, women and aboriginal business.

As we look further to recovery and a return to the new normal, we need to get Canadians back to work. Canada’s workforce will simply not be the same as we move into recovery. In the span of a few short months, we went from one of the tightest job markets in recent history to unprecedented job losses. Unemployment may not return to pre-crisis levels at any point soon. Available jobs and the skills required will shift. Employers might increasingly look to automation to maintain operations during future crises and reduce risk. Canadians will need reskilling, upskilling and skills training programs to get them back to work. Education and training will also change, including more online learning and durable skills, with a focus on both work-integrated and lifelong learning. Ensuring all Canadians have opportunities to participate in the recovery will be essential for inclusive growth and widespread job creation.

With this, the Canadian Chamber has three main recommendations:

  1. To ensure inclusive growth in the recovery period, in the first instance there needs to be inclusive voices represented at policy and discussion forums. I had given the example of the federal government’s COVID-19 Supply Council, which must be replicated at all tables at all levels of government, as well as in boardrooms and leadership meetings, at labour and union tables, in occupational health and safety committees, and in business operations and return to work discussions.

  2. Secondly, Canada needs a comprehensive review of Employment Insurance (EI) Program. In prefacing this recommendation, I would like to say two things. Firstly, this is a longstanding recommendation of the Canadian Chamber, we have any number of policy resolutions over the years on this issue. Secondly, with this recommendation we are not diminishing the incredible work of the federal public service in response to the crisis, in developing and implementing programs such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit. Quite the opposite, they deserve widespread praise.

    Yet we do believe it is telling that these programs necessarily were situated outside of the EI program framework. Moving forward, we need to identify the reform needed to build a system than can respond to current and future workforce needs, ensure Canadians remain connected to the labour force and that it includes a strong upskilling / reskilling training component.

  3. Our third recommendation to get Canadians back into the workforce is to use local labour market information and real time data to develop labour market solutions that are created by business for business, led by sectors for sectors and tailored by communities for communities. In doing so, we advocate for the use of chambers of commerce and boards of trade as local hubs for employer collaboration that will provide facilitated time and space for businesses to share, collaborate and plan by building benchmarks and resiliency to futureproof workforce planning.

These are unprecedented times and there is no playbook to turn to. Policy and programming recommendations for recovery at this point are conjecture at best. There needs to be a thoughtful, inclusive, innovative and measured approach to the response. This is exactly what the Canadian Chamber’s proposal called the Talent Pipeline Management: A Canadian Economic Resiliency Program is designed to do.

I thank Committee members for the opportunity to appear today and look forward to answering any questions.