A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Help Wanted: After pandemic pivots, where have Canadian workers gone?

Amid a prolonged pandemic, laid-off workers took stock and reassessed their priorities

Restaurants, airlines, schools and nursing homes are at the sharp end of a labour crunch that’s afflicted employers all year long. In June,the unemployment rate fell to a record low of 4.9 per cent, tightening the screws on an economy with more positions than it could fill.

Amid a prolonged pandemic, laid-off workers took stock and reassessed their priorities. Others, grappling with burnout in precarious or stressful work environments with long hours, simply walked away.

Some of the hardest hit sectors are struggling to find and retain workers. Wages have increased, but signs suggest some of that growth is slowing. Although retail employment is up from 2021, when public health restrictions kept many stores partially or fully closed, payroll employment dropped in both April and May, Statistics Canada data released Thursday shows.

Job vacancies in the health-care sector rose in May, StatCan reported, and are up 20 per cent from the same month last year. Meanwhile, the number of openings remained steady in accommodation and food services, but there are twice as many of them as the overall average.

So if workers are leaving their jobs, where are they going?

Back to school. Back to yoga. Toward public office, Uber driving, sales and writing.

Here are their stories:

‘I would shake at work:’ from flight attendant to city council candidate

Pascale Marchand is poised to leap from the skies to city hall.

Or hopes to. The 39-year-old union official and former flight attendant opted to run for municipal council in Hamilton this fall after a trying two years in an industry battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marchand, who started her cabin crew job in 2008, grew increasingly interested in her colleagues’ well-being, chairing several health and safety committees at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) since 2018.

“I got to see how important the social determinants of health are to people’s health. Just ensuring that they have a steady income, ensuring they have job security, ensuring that they have the availability of having sick days,” she says.

Municipal policies in areas ranging from housing to quality of life and the local economy can have a direct impact on those determinants, she says. “That’s why I’m going into politics. I’m trying to make a difference at that end.”

There’s an even more personal fire fuelling her run for office too. In March 2020, Marchand found herself snowed under with calls from fellow flight attendants as angst and uncertainty swirled around a novel coronavirus.

“They were very concerned that their employment could potentially threaten the health of their loved ones,” she recalls.

“By the first week of March I had burnout. I would shake at work because of this pressure of wanting to make things better for our membership.”

Marchand says her younger brother, who lives with mental health issues, went through a crisis in 2020, losing his job and experiencing homelessness for three months.

After tracking him down and helping him move in with their mother in New Brunswick, Marchand opted to access counselling and cognitive therapy services as well as a union support network, “which has helped me tremendously.”

She had enrolled in a bachelor’s program in public health at Brock University in 2018, graduating this year. But it was her experience of people’s vulnerability to social, economic and psychological strain brought on by the pandemic that drove her to seek public office.

“I have a lot of hope inside of me and I have a lot of energy inside of me. I just want to do the best I can to use my voice to try and elevate others.”

‘I became numb’: from support worker to yoga instructor

Growing up, Lindsay Couture thought she was meant to take care of people. From the age of 11, she was the primary caregiver for her mother who had respiratory issues. When it came time to decide on her career, she figured, why not stick to what she already knew?

Couture began working as a personal support worker in 2016 at a private long-term care home in Port Hope, Ont. Most days she’d work double shifts from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., dealing with intense pressure from upper management, combative residents, and what she described as extremely challenging working conditions.

“Long-term care was a very sad environment for me because I was unable to provide the care that a lot of residents needed,” the 29-year-old says. “Even though I still showed up for those 16-hour shifts, I became numb.”

Eventually, Couture stopped taking care of herself as her mental health steadily declined. In 2018, she went on disability leave.

After taking a year off, she was ready to work as a PSW again, but wanted to do it on her own terms. So, she opened her own community care company.

Months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As it dragged on, and PSWs left the field in droves, it became increasingly hard for Couture to hire workers and provide high-quality care.

Despite feelings of shame and guilt, Couture closed her company in January to avoid burning out again. She continued to provide private care for one last client until May.

Now, Couture works as a yoga instructor and Reiki practitioner. At first, yoga was an easy way to support herself after leaving her career as a PSW — she was already certified to teach — but she’s found it’s allowed her to remain an entrepreneur with control over her schedule.

She also drives for Uber as a side gig, which alone makes her more money than her full-time job as a PSW did.

“I am so happy to be out of a profession that I truly feel is going nowhere,” she says.

While working her new jobs, Couture is able to prioritize her mental health, find enough energy for work and put herself first before supporting others.

“I’m still helping people, but I’m helping people remove the barriers that are keeping them stuck in their lives … showing them that we do have choice in this life.”

‘I’m not just treading water’: from server to writer

Lori Fox compares working as a restaurant server to being a low-paid, undervalued caretaker of too many drunk and rude customers seemingly empowered to get away with sexual harassment and punishing behaviour in the form of lousy tips.

Fox left the industry in the spring of 2020 when an eatery in Whitehorse closed temporarily due to the pandemic. But that decision had been brewing for at least two years when an intoxicated Canada Day celebrant who refused to pay his bill unleashed a flurry of “transphobic, homophobic and misogynist slurs that were made very publicly.”

“My manager informed me that this was just a gentleman that he knew personally, who was having a really bad day and I should just bring him another beer and then he would pay his bill,” says Fox, 35, who uses the pronouns they and them.

“It was around that point that I was emotionally finished serving. But I wasn’t able to leave, however, until the pandemic actually forced me out of the industry.”

Fox began working at a pizza joint in Belleville, Ont., at age 14 before starting their career as a server three years later. They took those skills to Whitehorse, where they have lived for a decade, with stints in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, as well as three communities in British Columbia.

Regardless of the location, however, the experience was mostly the same: restaurateurs focusing on keeping patrons, especially regulars, happy at the expense of protecting staff that, in many cases, work long, irregular hours for low wages.

There are lessons to be learned from the pandemic for not only workers, but the restaurant industry as a whole, they say.

“I feel that we are at a pivotal moment where either we can slide back into the slot we have always occupied in this industry or we can move forward and make some actual changes that give more power to workers and create living wages and create better work environments.”

Fox, who has turned a previous side hustle as a freelance writer into more of a permanent job, says the work isn’t always easy, but it’s more fulfilling.

“I definitely feel more physically and emotionally safe. At least when things are hard, they’re hard because I’m doing work that I find valuable and that I know is moving me forward. I’m not just treading water.”

The Canadian Press

Employment