COVID-19 Upended the Labour Market. Why Haven’t Workers’ Lives Improved?

The pandemic offered us a chance to restructure society, and we’re squandering it

A photo illustration of a Help Wanted sign and several different workers in black and white
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When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Anna-Maria’s workplace to switch to takeout, she wasn’t too troubled. A server and hostess, she was told that the Toronto bar and grill would call her back when things picked up again.

As she waited, she applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided financial support to Canadians who had lost income as a result of the pandemic. It wasn’t until Anna-Maria (identified only by first name for privacy reasons) spotted a Help Wanted sign in the window that she became uneasy. Her suspicions were confirmed when she asked for her employee discount. A coworker told her that the restaurant would not grant it, admitting that the owner planned to fire everybody and bring in a new crew. Anna-Maria suspects he was trying to pay staff less.

“It was devastating,” she says. “If I’d known I was laid off, I would have looked for something better.” She has since pivoted back to her studies, scored a research job, and renounced restaurant work. “That experience was enough to turn me off working hospitality again,” she says. “Disrespect from customers is one thing, but from your employer?”

She wasn’t alone in feeling that way. Over the summer, Anna-Maria’s former workplace struggled to find help—including for her old position. In fact, labour shortages have hit one-third of Canadian businesses in key industries including tourism, retail, food production, and health care. As of September, according to Statistics Canada, job vacancies soared past 1 million.

Warning signs were already visible in the spring, as US workers exited en masse from former jobs and Twitter was overrun with images of shuttered fast food outlets. (“Want to know why we’re closed?” read one sign in a Chipotle window. “We are overworked, understaffed, underpaid, and underappreciated.”) Weeks later, Canadian media covered the trend at home. Frustrated employers called for an end to pandemic benefits—CERB and its replacement, CRB— in order to force people back to work, calling missing workforces “plain lazy.” Then workers hit back. “With an abysmally low rate of pay, bad (often erratic) hours, no sick days and near-constant sexual harassment, racism, sexism and queerphobia, working in service sucks,” wrote one former server in the Globe and Mail.

Some experts now call it the Great Resignation. The high levels of stress that come with low-wage work in manufacturing, retail, and hospitality have taken their toll, and we are seeing those effects in the labour market—a market that seems unprepared for the scale and depth of the discontent. COVID-19 created entirely new stressors for front line workers, who bore the toughest economic and health impacts of the pandemic, with women, racialized people, immigrants, and youth losing the most income and stability. As the Canadian labour research organization Centre for Future Work put it, “Long-standing fault lines in Canada’s labour market were brutally exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Repairing those structural failings will be an essential precondition for reconstructing the national economy.” And the economy needs the help: the widespread labour shortages, according to one report, are slowing the growth of more than 60 percent of Canadian businesses.

And yet, pay has not gone up, conditions have not improved, and workers hired today will find themselves no more secure than those hired at the beginning of 2020. If COVID-19 offered us a chance to restructure society, it is one that we have missed. Are we really about to exit the worst of the pandemic with little to show in terms of bolstering workers’ rights or quality of life?

The jobs going unfilled are overwhelmingly “non-standard employment,” a term that refers to casual or temporary work without benefits or certain legal protections. It encompasses gig, part-time, temporary, and seasonal employment as well as people holding multiple jobs, like cleaners, food service workers, retail staff, agricultural workers, and general labourers. This type of work, associated with high rates of injury and increased work-life conflict, makes up about a third of the labour force. These occupations are also among the lowest paying.

Indeed, the complaint from employers that pandemic benefits were more attractive than wages is especially damning when you realize how little CERB actually was. At its height—about $500 a week—it was equivalent to less than full-time minimum wage in much of the country. As it stands, the average minimum wage in Canada, currently sitting at around $13.75 per hour, has been basically stagnant since the 1970s. A 2014 iPolitics article noted that, between 1977 and 2012, the average earnings of a Canadian worker, when adjusted for inflation, increased just 3 percent. Usually, a labour shortage would drive up wages, and while some employers have increased their offerings, it hasn’t happened in any systemically significant way—wages were only fractionally higher in July 2021 than in April 2020.

One of the few widely publicized pay raises turned out to be temporary. In the early months of COVID-19, when shutdowns were in full swing and “Ça va bien aller” posters seemed to grace every window in Quebec, Loblaws, along with other companies, made a point of offering “hero pay,” a bump of a few dollars an hour for front line grocery staff. But it didn’t last. “At the height of the pandemic, that pay was clawed back,” says Derek Johnstone, a spokesperson with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. According to Johnstone, UFCW members resented the way employers celebrated them only to take away their paltry raises once the PR shine wore off. Some workplaces have offered signing bonuses, putting up as much as $1,000 to lure back hairdressers, delivery drivers, and Amazon warehouse workers, but such tactics haven’t made much of a dent in the shortage. Possibly because the extra money, while welcome, doesn’t represent enough of a systemic change for the millions of Canadians—about half the population—living paycheque to paycheque.

The federal minimum wage is scheduled to rise to $15 per hour at the end of this year. But it’s been such a long time coming—having been recommended by politicians since at least 2015—that the figure is woefully out of date. As recently as 2019, a report by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation found that full-time minimum-wage workers already can’t afford to rent their own apartment in over 90 percent of Canadian cities. As well, around a quarter of working parents are in non-standard employment. This means they frequently have shift schedules that necessitate child care, which, if they live in a high-cost area like Toronto, can easily eat up their income. Furthermore, the minimum-wage increase affects only federally regulated workspaces—such as banking, air transport, and telecommunications. The majority of workers in restaurants, retail, or warehouses won’t see any change. “We know that our members are heroes and that they deserve a living wage,” Johnstone says. “But they can see that the government isn’t introducing policies that reflect that.”

By a living wage, Johnstone is referring to the income required to meet basic needs, such as child care, shelter, and food. That amount depends on where you live and your situation but can range from about $16 an hour in a small city like Sault Ste. Marie to over $22 an hour in Toronto. The concept has gained popularity in recent years but is often met with criticism that it would be too expensive for employers, resulting in fewer jobs and reduced hours for workers.

That misconception is what spurred Canadian economist David Card to carry out his revolutionary myth-busting research into the benefits of minimum-wage increases—research that won him the Nobel Prize earlier this year. Indeed, the handful of Canadian employers that have implemented a living wage have enjoyed fairly uncontroversial benefits. Vancity, a credit union with 2,500 employees across BC, has been vocal about how switching to the living-wage framework in 2011 has both improved employee morale and strengthened the local economy. It also netted Vancity numerous awards as one of Canada’s top employers. And, as for all the angst about the expense of those higher salaries, when BC’s New Westminster municipality committed to a living wage for all city workers, it had basically no impact on the city’s operating budget.

But, even if increased labour costs do affect the bottom line, employees who aren’t earning enough for a basic standard of living can—as we now see across Canada—end up costing an economy more.

Low wages, however, are not the only sticking point for workers. The lack of dignity and safety is another significant concern. Almost as soon as many low-wage employees were deemed essential, at the start of the pandemic, they were met with a hatred that often crossed over into assault. In April 2020, the CBC reported that grocery workers in Guelph, LCBO workers in Stratford, and Tim Hortons employees in Waterloo (all in Ontario) had been spat or coughed on by customers. Veteran retail worker Devon Noir picked up a job with an upmarket spice store in Edmonton just before COVID-19 hit. As discourse around the disease, and around mask protocols, became polarized, Noir and other retail workers were forced to deal with abusive customers without adequate protection from their employer. Staff asked repeatedly for a curbside pickup option to cut down on risky interactions, but the request was denied. “What constantly struck me,” Noir says, “is just how much I was risking my life for absolutely no good reason.”

As vaccine passports roll out across the country, many business owners are still skirting the rules, putting workers at risk in the process. We place significant personal trust in workplace safety precautions, but there is often little oversight to ensure they are followed. Despite having health-and-safety laws in all provinces, the restaurant sector has some of the lowest levels of compliance. That’s why the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC), a group that came together during the pandemic, is lobbying the federal government for better-defined standards for service workers, including guaranteed sick days and universal standards for PPE and contact tracing. They also want governments to follow-through and make sure these standards are maintained. “One province has a contact-tracing app, another is just like, ‘You can take down names—we’re never going to check them,’” says Rebecca Gordon, a CRWC organizer. “It’s the same virus across the country. Why don’t we have universal standards?”

Even with clear guidelines, workers’ rights mean something only to the degree that they are actually enforced and respected. And, since enforcement is often directly tied to employee complaints made to labour boards, the problem tends to perpetuate itself if people don’t speak up. Enforcement can be even worse in industries with no public-facing aspect, like agriculture and food manufacturing, which employ thousands of largely racialized immigrant workers. An analysis by The Local found that inspection rates in Ontario’s industrial sector have fallen by 30 percent in the last decade. Part of this is due to overstretched and underfunded inspectors, but part can be blamed on how fear of blowback, and the increasing precarity of workers, leads to fewer complaints. What doesn’t get reported doesn’t get investigated.

The Centre for Future Work says that, if precarious workers were secure enough to call out unsafe work practices, many of the infections and deaths that have occurred in environments like warehouses might have been avoided. (With no federal effort to track workplace COVID-19 exposures, it is difficult to know just how many people have suffered.) While labour codes do allow workers to refuse unsafe work, many people are too fearful of losing their jobs—especially migrants. “When you have a worker population that is so vulnerable and precarious, the notion that they’re going to stand up and exercise the right to refuse is very naive,” says Johnstone.

The double risk of exposure and precarity is particularly relevant for personal support workers, the lowest-paid workers who staff care homes, hospitals, and community care environments. PSWs are overwhelmingly women, overwhelmingly racialized, and overwhelmingly overworked. Over the past few years, they have been over three times as likely as physicians to contract COVID-19 and have experienced critically high burnout levels. “People will be washing their hands, look in the mirror, and they’ll have tears streaming down their face,” says Sonja Bernhard, a nurse who took on a PSW role at a Hamilton long-term care home this winter. She’s seen many of her colleagues leave the profession during the pandemic and estimates that there are about 130 vacancies at her current organization. Nationally, vacancies in the health care sector in March made up one-sixth of unfilled jobs—more than any other single industry.

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), notes that health care workers, like retail workers, were heralded as COVID-19 heroes but received little government support. “Politicians of every stripe were saying, ‘We love you,’” she says. “But they never extended a hand.”

For Silas, the key to addressing shortages in health care, and by extension the burnout crisis, is effective forward planning. Currently, we know very little about the makeup of health care workers: who they are, how they identify, the languages they speak, the areas they work in. There’s also no way of knowing the number of workers in the critically hit long-term care sector, making it nearly impossible to plan around shortages and the accompanying burnout. The CFNU, along with over sixty other health care organizations, has asked the government for a federal agency that can produce data to help focus recruitment and training in the areas that need it the most and has the legislative power to ensure worker safety.

There’s already a precedent: the construction sector has benefited from a similar concept for years. BuildForce is an organization that provides the industry with advice, labour market information, and resources to support its workforce. This has historically included pushing antidiscrimination and accessibility policies and diversifying recruitment, such as by hiring more women and Indigenous people. Although it’s industry led, BuildForce grew out of a decade-long federal program. It has released reports, including throughout the pandemic, on challenges facing the construction workforce—something the health care industry, which represents one in ten Canadian workers and a larger slice of Canada’s GDP, sorely lacks.

“BuildForce can predict how many electricians we’ll need in five years,” says Silas. “We plan in the dark.” Without the data for such forecasting, health care agencies can’t hire and support staff at the levels needed to prevent chronic overwork and shortages. But the lack of such data also helps underscore a growing realization among experts about the labour shortage: we are experiencing the effects of a crisis that loomed well before the pandemic, one decades in the making.

There’s no question that COVID-19 upended the labour market, but it isn’t the sole reason why, as of this writing, unemployment remains 120 percent higher than it was in February 2020. If employers are struggling to hire workers, it’s because of a long-standing unhappiness with poor working conditions and meagre wages—the very circumstances that led workers during the pandemic, especially in customer-facing jobs, to experience what one economist called “the most asymmetrical recession in Canadian industry.” The pandemic, in other words, didn’t create Canada’s labour shortage. It exacerbated an existing problem. It’s also forcing companies in retail or hospitality to realize that the problem might not go away any time soon.

In fact, a September report from the Business Development Bank of Canada suggested that ending financial support programs (the favourite villain of many business owners) is unlikely to induce missing workers to return—at least a fifth of those who left affected industries have already changed field. As Jennifer Moss, a member of the UN Global Happiness Council, wrote for the CBC, “Organizations that still believe they have a transactional-only relationship with their employees are witnessing their obsolescence.”

Gordon and the other CRWC members are adamant that we can build a world where these often disregarded jobs are not just safe but actually supportive, winning workers back for the long term. But, to keep the country running, we will likely have to start offering workers more.

Lucy Uprichard
Lucy Uprichard is a British writer and researcher based in Montreal. She is a former Chawkers Fellow at The Walrus and her writing has appeared in Vice, Dazed Digital, Chatelaine, and elsewhere.