Vital Signs 2015

Barriers to employment

What makes it so hard to find a job, any job, even an insecure job?

Hamilton’s economic renaissance is not addressing the larger barriers that many people face when seeking employment. A lack of affordable high quality child care spaces, deep poverty, and discrimination in the labour market all continue to create very unbalanced outcomes for many of Hamilton’s citizens.


A major challenge for many parents entering the labour market is finding high quality childcare that fits their schedule and budget. For many women this is a pressing issue, as women are three times as likely to be lone parents as men (2011 Census), and women provide twice as much unpaid childcare as men in two parent homes (Statistics Canada’s 2009 General Social Survey). For workers in insecure employment, the challenges are magnified. Chart 29 shows that for almost 4 in 10 insecure workers with children, access to childcare limits their ability to work, compared to less than 1 in 10 secure workers.

Chart 29. Interactions between employment and childcare, workers aged 25-65 with children, by employment security categories, City of Hamilton, 2011 and 2014 (combined)

Chart 28

Data source: McMaster University and United Way Toronto, Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) data file, (2011 and 2014).
In a survey of Hamilton’s parents of children in kindergarten, cost was cited at the most common barrier to finding childcare (cited by 35% of parents, and 38% of the lowest income parents). Chart 30 shows the difficulties cited by low-income parents more often than the overall average of all parents.

Chart 30. Selected difficulties when looking for childcare parents of children in kindergarten, by very low income and all incomes, City of Hamilton, 2010

Chart 29

Data source: City of Hamilton Early Years Research Team. Kindergarten Parent Survey


The declining benefit rates of Ontario’s main social assistance program, Ontario Works, have made it harder and harder for recipients to focus on anything but basic day-to-day survival. With a net gap of 25% between adjustments to assistance rates and the rising cost of food and shelter since 1986, rates have not kept up with the cost of living (chart 31). Ontario Works clients are reliant on food banks and other charitable programs to meet their basic needs, taking time and energy away from any job search.

Chart 31. Change in social assistance for a single person on Ontario Works compared to increases in cost of food and shelter, 1986-2014

Chart 30

Data sources: Caledon Institute of Social Policy (Welfare in Canada, 2014), Statistics Canada (Consumer Price Index, 2014)

There is clear evidence that living in poverty, especially deep poverty experienced by those on social assistance, leads to illness and makes finding a job more difficult. The ODSP Action Coalition attributes some of the rise in the Ontario Disability Support Program to the low OW rates:

“ODSP caseloads are in part a reflection of the inadequacy of Ontario Works. Prolonged periods on OW, with its dangerously inadequate benefits levels, often result in a serious decline in health. Unaddressed, declining health can lead to serious disability, which makes full-time gainful employment unlikely or impossible. Thus, people who have spent a long time on OW can find themselves disabled, where their only option is to turn to ODSP for support.”

In a 2010 client survey of Hamilton residents receiving Ontario Works benefits one of the most common suggestions for improvement was increasing support for people as they try to gain entry into the labour market, as the current low social assistance payments add additional challenges to find employment:

“There needs to be more money made available to those seeking employment. [The] basic needs [benefit] does not cover both food and transportation.”

“If they could up what a single person gets, that would be good for all involved. I get it you guys don’t want people to get too comfortable living on ‘OW’. But sometimes it comes down to clean clothes or not. Therefore making job searching impossible. No one wants to go out looking for a job in dirty or inappropriate clothes. Funds are limited therefore making life limited.”

“I believe that sometimes is not black and white when it comes to rules and that sometimes different circumstances change rules. Single parents need support and I find the system is not ideal when dealing with this. I’m a single mom and I received every road block there could be to seek employment. I did it cause I’m strong but that’s not the case for every single parent.”

Racism and discrimination

The experience of racism in Canada’s labour market is pervasive and is a major barrier for persons of colour or persons with non-English sounding names to getting hired.

Recent studies by University of Toronto economics professor Phillip Oreopoulos of 20,000 fictitious resumes sent in response to job ads across 20 occupational categories found that Canadian employers were 35% to 40% more likely to call English-sounding names for an interview, compared to foreign-sounding names, despite identical resumes otherwise with 4-6 years experiences and a bachelor’s degree.

Follow-up interviews by Dr. Oreopoulos’ team found that employers justify the discrimination because they make assumptions about level of English proficiency just by judging a person’s name. However, the research showed that the degree of discrimination was found to be the same even if the job did not require high proficiency in English, or if applicants were identified as Canadian born.

Many other types of discrimination are also barriers to finding work, many which are prohibited by the Ontario Human rights code, including gender, age, sexual orientation and disability. Since there are so many people looking for work for every job opening, employers have been found to discriminate on more subtle grounds which are not protected by legislation), such as appearance including facial features, weight, height, tattoos and piercings.

Interviews by Dr. Oreopoulos’ research team with employers helped to document the type of ‘cultural shortcuts’ that occur, leading to racism and discrimination.
Employers stated for example:

“You know that you can call Bob Smith, and you can talk to him as quickly as you want to. It’s less work because you know that his English will be fine. It also indicates that he’s white looking. The brown guy who was born here is not less desirable in the workplace, but it takes something more to know for sure that he speaks English without an accent. We’d have to make a phone call and test the water.”

“People who have immigrated to Canada tend to be harder workers, so are preferable hires, although it’s difficult to imagine hiring someone with a long first name, as it might be impractical in terms of answering the phone and saying it. People with easy-to-use shorter names are easier to hire and work with.”

“I personally am guilty of gravitating towards Anglo names on resumes and I believe that it’s a very human condition –[a result of] resistance to change.”

“[People] are surprised that a woman has a position like this in a menswear company, and they ask me where I’m from, and if I’m Catholic. It feels insulting. Yes, discrimination exists in professional interactions including hiring, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it.”

In Hamilton, construction and public administration have the lowest representation of visible minorities in Hamilton, with just 8% and 9% respectively, while 14% of Hamilton’s labour force is made up of persons identifying as visible minorities (chart 32). Even though Hamilton’s visible minority population is better educated than the average across the city, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, occupations that require generally less education such as manufacturing and accommodation and food services are among the industries where there is a higher representation of visible minorities (17% and 19% respectively). Many of these findings are similar to trends across Ontario.

Chart 32. Proportion of workers who identify with a visible minority group by industry, City of Hamilton, 2011

Chart 31

Data source: Statistics Canada, National Household Survey (2011)