Essential Voices: Working in the Pandemic
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Essential Voices: Working in the Pandemic

Essential workers from across the country talk about the unique challenges of these strange times

Labour reporting has been a “blind spot for a lot of media organizations,” the Toronto Star‘s Sara Mojtehedzadeh observes on today’s episode of CANADALAND.

“But I do also think that a lot of young people now coming up have an interest in this area, because I think our generation instinctively understands why precarious work is an important topic, because a lot of us are living it.”

“If I were thinking about what would I invest in,” offers host Jesse Brown, “to try to attract bigger and newer audiences and bring people to news who don’t read news: talk about real life, talk about work.”

Last week, CANADALAND put out a call for essential workers willing to speak to us about what their jobs have been like during the pandemic.

We heard from people across the country, from a variety of industries, and sprinkled snippets of their stories throughout Jesse’s interview with Mojtehedzadeh on today’s show.

But we want to share more of what they had to say.

What does it mean to be essential? What does it mean to go to work now? And how are typical workplace tensions — with customers, co-workers, managers — taking new forms in these strange times?

The below are edited excerpts from interviews conducted by producer Roslyn Kufuor; in all but one case, anonymity has been granted in order for the person to speak freely about their employment.


Florist, Alberta

I work in the flower industry. I’m a florist or a floral designer.

I am doing mostly sympathy arrangements these days, the funeral department is always busy now. But messages of hope, of love, of hanging in are also on the rise. People can’t hug each other, so they’re sending flowers.

I want business, but funerals is not the way you want to to be busy.

But I think it’s important. Florists are part of, you know, the most intimate moments of people’s lives. We are there when people get married. We are there when people die.

I’d like to think we’re essential in helping people survive this, in a way maybe some people don’t think about. But it means something to me to be a vessel for that message. And if you’re sending flowers, know that the card messages get read. And we think about that when we’re making the flowers.


Brewery worker

I work in a medium-sized brewery, and I’ve been working there uninterrupted since the start of the pandemic.

Things have been going well, we are pretty on top of PPE. We all wear masks all day when we’re working at our stations, and we have thermal face-scanners, so every day you come in and it takes your temperature before you start.

I feel pretty safe at work.

But I don’t feel safe that I have to take the subway to work every day.

Being on mass transit for an hour makes me feel uncomfortable. I just hope that the people who I’m sharing the subway with are riding it because they have to, that they aren’t just going out to visit their friends. I don’t have any choice — I have to go to work, every day, and I would like to see the fewest people possible in the situation.

I know that we’re all struggling and trying to live our lives, but it gets frustrating to see, you know, you see posts of people who are still going out to parties and still going out and socializing. And I find it very frustrating that I don’t go anywhere except for work. And I’m still worried about getting to work because of the number of people that are crammed on to the subway.

But I honestly think that a curfew is an awful idea: it’s just giving an already shitty police force extra discretionary powers to hassle people on the street.

But the more non-essential things are shut down, the easier it is for those of us that are considered essential. Whether beer is essential is another question.


Hospital cleaner, Ontario

I’ve been employed at my location for about four or five years now. We’re directly exposed to the patients, working with them consistently.

When the pandemic first started, I believe the hospital was really unprepared, PPE-wise. We had a decent stockpile, but throughout the course of the pandemic, we’ve kind of had a variation. Like, at one point we had an abundance of supplies and at the next moment we had very little.

The general morale around the hospital isn’t the best. People want more pay. They don’t necessarily want to deal with patients who have Covid.

But we actually got pandemic pay — we got a lump sum, a decent amount after taxes. Although we were one of the last departments in the hospital to receive it.


Telecom worker, Western Canada

I work for a large telecommunications company. I work in the field and then I also have paperwork that I would do from the office and now do from home.

We’ve had really good policies, as far as being able to refuse work if we don’t feel safe. So the company is responsive, and they are listening to our feedback, which has been really good. There’s basically been a no-questions-asked policy: if you think you may have been exposed or are showing symptoms, they’ve paid for our time to stay at home and make sure we’re healthy and make alternate work arrangements where possible.

But there’s been a lot of extra stress that hasn’t necessarily been well-mitigated.

“You’re asking us to come and endanger ourselves — the least you can do is take the bare minimum steps to protect us.”

The people who tend to still be open and ordering new services right now kind of fall into three rough categories: the people who have no choice but to order services because they’re essential to life and limb; the people whose businesses are open but not operating and they need things to work from home; and then the third category, the gross one, is people who don’t believe that Covid is real or that anything needs to change. I’d say they probably make up 15 to 20 percent.

I was doing an install, and the customer did not want to mask up and didn’t want to give me the space. I had to threaten to leave until he was willing to give me the space to work so that I could feel safe again.

He was rude about it, like, “You’re a coward.” Like, “I don’t see why you’re so scared” or “You’re really worried too much about this.” Like, there’s just this ignorance around it.

And I fall into that category of people with comorbidities. I’m asthmatic. And if I were to contract it, it would probably be a rough go. I’m choosing to work because I can make myself safe: I can walk out of a job, and I know there will be no consequences.

Had that customer refused to give me the space to work? I would have packed up my tools and left, and my company would’ve been behind me.

If you’re going to invite service people into your workplace, you have to adapt to their level of comfort, not your own. You’re asking us to come and endanger ourselves — the least you can do is take the bare minimum steps to protect us. We’re not looking for you to take heroic measures or anything, but put a mask on. It’s not hard.


Employee at national retail chain

I’m a little disappointed in the way my employer has handled their response to the pandemic and to the lockdown.

At the beginning, when things started to shut down, there was a lot of resistance to closing the stores and there was a bit of a public outcry. You know, people wanted the company to lead by example and to protect their workers as best they could.

And the response was, “There’s no need to worry. We have no plans to close at this time. We have no plans to add extra protections for our workers, but if they don’t feel safe, they have the option of taking a layoff.”

A friend of mine reached out to the CEO, whose email is public. The response that she got was basically, “If you have a better idea, I’d like to hear it.” You know, “We are doing what we can, we will listen to the government, and that’s that.”

Under the current circumstances, there is a lockdown, so the public is not in our stores at this time. So right now, I do feel safe.

But before that, myself and most of my coworkers did not really feel safe, because we were letting customers into our stores who didn’t have masks. They could claim a medical condition, and we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

“I feel like there needs to be more standing your ground against people like that.”

There were some customers who got belligerent and would make known to us their distaste for our position on masks, even though it wasn’t the company’s decision. Some customers got violent — not like physically violent, but just, you know, verbally.

And the company’s response was, “Well, they want to shop here, so we’re going to let them. So what we’re going to do when these people come to the store is we’ll just clear an entire area of the store, and anybody who doesn’t feel comfortable being there can go to another area of the store until they leave. And we’ll just make sure that the person who doesn’t have a mask has minimal contact with the staff.” It didn’t feel like they were taking our concerns very seriously.

If we open up our doors again, I’d like to see a little more of a firm stance from management against people who insist that their freedoms are being infringed upon. I’d just like them to understand that it’s not a matter of turning a customer away because we don’t want them there, it’s a matter of not following a protocol that is meant for their and our safety. Like, “To protect yourself and our staff, we cannot let you in here. We’re happy to serve you by other means, but we just can’t do it indoors. We’re not saying, ‘You can’t shop here, period.’”

I feel like there needs to be more standing your ground against people like that.

We had a customer who was let into the store without a mask, despite our telling this person, “Hey, you should be wearing a mask.” He ignored us, and he felt the need to complain to my manager about it. And in doing so, he made a very ridiculous comparison, saying that him being forced to wear a mask is like the Apartheid laws in South Africa before 1991.

And when I heard that the customer said that, I was very angry. You know, I’m what the government refers to as a “visible minority.”

So that really upset me, because it’s just a very, very bad comparison. It really put a damper on my day.


Municipal employee, Edmonton

I work as a unionized worker for the City of Edmonton.

I’m trying to be thankful that I’ve been able to continue working throughout the pandemic. It’s just… there’s always going to be tensions between management and workers. But now with Covid, it’s increased the tensions between workers.

A lot of guys I work with, despite being union guys, are quite conservative. They’re just, like, a standard Conservative voter. A lot of them get their information and news straight from Facebook.

I get along with them very well. Usually, we just don’t talk politics. But at this point of the pandemic, politics just comes up when people are talking.

Now, as vaccines are rolling out, there’s a lot of talk about Bill Gates and microchips — and I don’t think they’re entirely joking, which is, like, sort of terrifying.

I work with people who don’t think that they’re going to get vaccinated. I’ve seen tons of people just don’t wear masks when they’re riding in trucks together.

Working people have kind of settled into this weird acceptance. It’s been going on for so long now that people are just not even thinking about the danger or risk anymore, because they’ve gone this far without contracting it — which is just a weird thing to be around a lot, because things are still dangerous and there’s still a chance you can get it.

I also don’t want to be that annoying guy telling them to put a mask on. But they do wear a mask if they’re in a vehicle with me.

I also don’t want to be squealing on people to management. The people in management, I have problems with them anyways, so I’m not going to squeal on union brothers and sisters. So it is, uh, somewhat stressful.

When Covid’s done and over, when they’re trying to come up with new policies and stuff, it’s just, I think it has more to do with education. If people actually understood that they could legitimately protect themselves, I think they would.


Dalen Cochrane, quality assurance at Chapman’s Ice Cream, Ontario

It’s taken some adjustment, with new protocols to follow, but overall it’s been pretty good.

We’ve got temperature screening before we even enter the building, we’ve got face shields that are provided for us, and we get a brand new surgical mask every day. So, I mean, yeah, I feel like we’ve probably got it better than most places that are still open, and even some of my friends that work in hospitals say they wish that they had the PPE that we have.

Everybody that wasn’t in management was given a two-dollar-an-hour hazard-pay raise. And that continued right up until September, when management decided to just make it permanent for all the employees. They understand that the workforce is what really drives the company, and they treat us well.

Normally in the summer, production kicks up and we end up working at least a few Saturdays just to try and keep up with demand. This year, management made the decision to not launch any new products, to not make any sales, and no matter how busy things got — and this was probably one of the busiest summers that we’ve had in many years — they never even hinted at working a Saturday. I’ve been there for six years, and this was the first summer that I’ve never had to work a Saturday. It’s smart, and it’s appreciated for sure.

Chapman’s has actually been working with the Ontario government to build a special freezer to house the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored at -70ºC. I mean, that’s a pretty cool thing that they didn’t have to do. They reached out to the government and said, “Hey, we’ll build this. Obviously, we want our employees to get the vaccine when it becomes available. But, you know, we’re fine, but it’ll be in this freezer and storing it.”

Top images via Chapman’s.

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