'Will I ever have the money to pay bills?' Retail worker faces third layoff in April

Joyce Garant has worked since she was 15 years old.

Her first job was as a hostess for McDonald's before she became a dress store manager. Then in 1987, she was hired at the Hudson's Bay in her hometown of Windsor, Ont.

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"I've always had a job," she said. "Even when I had my son, back then you only got 16 weeks and I went back early."

But in the span of the last 13 months, Garant has been laid off three times — including last month when she was among the 84,000 retail workers to lose their job.

Statistics Canada said Friday the economy lost 207,000 jobs in April as a new surge in COVID-19 infections led to renewed public health measures that closed businesses.

The retail sector was hit hardest, with stricter restrictions on the operation of non-essential stores implemented in Ontario, Alberta and several regions of Quebec, according to the national statistics gathering agency.

Among those who lost their job was Garant. The beauty adviser for Clinique makeup and skin care at Hudson's Bay department store has been laid off with each wave of COVID-19.

"Financially it's been really rough," she said. "I pushed back my mortgage and car payments, which in the end will cost me more in interest, and then I started to resort to using credit cards to pay hydro and gas until the money came in."

While Garant said she's lucky — the Bay continued to pay her medical benefits throughout her layoffs — she said she faced long delays obtaining employment insurance, deepening her credit card debt.

The 57-year-old retail worker said she was still paying off debt from her second layoff when she was laid off a third time in April.

"We just got back up and running and then we were shut down again," Garant said. "You get behind on things and it's stressful. I just wonder, 'Will I ever have the money to pay bills? Am I ever going to get out of the hole?'"

She said it's frustrating that the restrictions don't allow her to work and yet customers can buy the same cosmetics and skin care products at drugstores, which remain open for business.

"It's really unfair," Garant said. "People can go into a drugstore and buy my product but I can't physically sell it."

The retail veteran said she'll be going back to work on Monday to do telephone sales.

"I work on a clientele basis, so I'll be calling them to see if they need anything," she said.

Garant said she's fortunate to be returning to the Bay — where she's worked for 34 years.

"You look at all the stores that have closed, and you pray yours will bounce back from this," she said. "When you're older, it's scary. Who's going to want to hire you?"

After returning to pre-pandemic levels in March, employment among people aged 55 and older fell by 58,000 or 1.4 per cent in April, Statistics Canada said.

Although employment among older men changed little in April compared with February 2020 — the last month before pandemic shutdowns swept the country — the federal agency said employment among older women was down 43,000 or 2.3 per cent following April's job losses.

Meanwhile, the ongoing economic uncertainty is having a lasting detrimental impact on retailers, said Simon Gaudreault, senior director of national research for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

"This is really turning into a marathon and uncertainty is one of the worst things for our economy and for business," he said in an interview. "It's becoming tougher and tougher."

One of the challenges retailers face is having to buy new merchandise for the spring and summer shopping seasons despite reduced sales, very little cash on-hand, mounting debt and unsold inventory, said Michelle Wasylyshen, a spokeswoman with the Retail Council of Canada.

She said it's not surprising that retail employment fell 3.8 per cent in April — far outpacing the overall drop in employment of 1.1 per cent.

"Non-essential retailers continue to be severely affected by shutdowns and lockdowns," Wasylyshen said in an email. "In Ontario alone, non-essential retailers in some parts of the province have now been closed for a staggering 191 days since the beginning of the pandemic."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2021.

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