Feature Illustration: Crystal Yung

By Grace McGrenere

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As the “Great Resignation” sees many workers leaving their jobs during the pandemic, it seems like “something else” is the answer on many workers’ lips.

The term Great Resignation was first coined in the U.S. to describe the mass of workers who started quitting their jobs after the first few months of the pandemic. According to the U.S Bureau of Labour Statistics, 4.5 million Americans quit their job between November 2020 and November 2021. Americans are choosing to resign from their jobs during the pandemic in hopes of finding better alternatives to low wages and unsafe working conditions. 

While Canada has not reported a mass resignation of workers on par with the United States, significant numbers of workers are struggling mentally, contemplating changing jobs, and changing the ways they conceptualize their identities in the wake of the pandemic.

So far this is not manifesting as a physical change within the Canadian labour force. According to Statistics Canada’s December 2021 Labour Force Survey, the share of the population aged fifteen years and older participating in the labour market held steady at 65.3% in December, virtually the same as it was prior to the pandemic. Statistics Canada’s October 2021 Labour Force Survey also showed that two-thirds of the unemployed who came back to work within a year returned to the same industry as their last job.

Yet all is not well with Canadian workers. November 2021’s edition of Life Work’s Mental Health Index reports that one in four working Canadians indicate that their personal and work lives have worsened since the pandemic. September 2021’s edition of Life Work’s Mental Health Index indicates that 35% of Canadians are considering leaving their jobs.

If Canadians are contemplating change, then why are Americans responding to pandemic conditions with action, in contrast? CIBC Economist Avery Shenfeld told Bloomberg, that the labour market in the United States is tighter and more inflationary. A “tight” labour market encourages those unhappy with their jobs to look for a better offer in the knowledge that such jobs exist, according to Shenfeld. The stakes and conditions in Canada are not that concerning, yet.

Canada and the United States have responded differently to the pandemic in terms of how they standardized preventative measures and cushion social and economic burdens, Carleton University Human Rights and Social Justice Professor, Paul Mkandawire told The Leveller. The way that the United States has responded to the pandemic has caused a polarizing effect within the country, changing the way labourers view their working conditions. 

“I think it (the Great Resignation) is happening in both settings — in the United States and globally — but I think it is much more gradual in Canada because of how the two countries have responded,” says Mkandawire. 

Canadian governments have tended to offer greater financial support to workers and businesses during the pandemic, compared to their U.S. counterparts — as well acting more decisively on mask and vaccine mandates, with greater social consensus supporting public health measures.

Yet if Canadian responses to the pandemic have been less polarizing than the United States, they still have caused suffering and had negative effects on Canadians, forcing some to change how they identify as labourers. 

Mkandawire argues that there is now less of an emphasis on the individual experience of work and more on collective solidarity. “The pandemic has taught us that we are not as separate as individuals,” he says. “Because of the pandemic and the shared fragility and vulnerability, we have seen a rise in communal values of cooperation — values that celebrate consideration and caring for each other and values that detest extreme cases of individualism.”

This flies in the face of pre-existing social values, which tend to glamorize individualism, riches, and fame — where celebrities and billionaire entrepreneurs are positioned as heroes. The pandemic has spun this narrative on its axis, framing frontline labourers as national heroes. 

“We are looking at health care workers and ordinary people working in grocery stores as heroes. Fame and riches are beginning to take a back seat,” says Mkandawire. “Admiration for simple acts of kindness in the face of the pandemic — those are the most sort of cherished values.”

“Thank you to our frontline workers” became a pandemic slogan used by citizens, politicians, and corporations to celebrate those who performed essential tasks for the public. It acknowledged the shared struggles of the individuals doing the work no one else wanted to — those who bagged our groceries, delivered our packages, and took care of us while we were sick. 

Yet while celebrations and praises rang in for essential workers, the rights of these typically-precarious workers did not improve.“We have not seen essential workers’ wages increase. There is this social prestige that is accorded to these types of workers,” says Mkandawire. “On the one hand, these are essential frontline workers. On the other hand, they are disposable, dispensable, and not worth any sort of good living wage. These are our heroes, but [they] continue to be exploited.”

This contradiction is evidently inspiring labour action today, like the New Brunswick Nurses Union (NBNU), who voted 92% in favour of a strike on December 6

Nurses in New Brunswick are tired and fed up,” says NBNU President, Paula Doucet in a press release. “With a combined 92% favourable strike vote, their demand for respect and better healthcare for all is more evident than ever. Our current system is broken, it has been for years. It’s time to fix it.”

The union reached a collective agreement with the province of New Brunswick on December 10th, after going without  a contract since 2018. So it seems that our societal reevaluation of essential and healthcare workers during a pandemic has translated into action, with the province quickly settling with nurses after a contract impasse festered for years.

Beyond the field of health care, the exploitation of casual workers has also not gone unnoticed. Rather, the recognition of these workers as essential has shed light on their poor working conditions.

“With these changes, workers are more aware of how they need to be treated in the workplace,” says Professor Mkandawire. “They are more actively aware of the inequalities that exist and have persisted in the workplace, so much so that they are much more ready to explore other occupational options.”

Yet casual workers still find themselves scrabbling to achieve real gains. In November, casual workers at the University of Toronto did reach a collective agreement with the university. The United Steelworkers local 1998 (USW 1998), who represent approximately 8500 administration and technical workers at the university and some of the affiliated organizations, negotiated two-paid sick days and a 1% wage increase for the casual workers. 

This represents real — yet, in many ways, shockingly meagre — improvements. Of course, these workers not only have to contend with their employer and the exploitative status quo of their working conditions, but a government who seems determined to hold them down.

To start with, while the casual workers do the same work as the full-time workers within this unit, but they do not have much security or language in their contracts to help them advance to full-time positions. “Many people hold many contracts concurrently and have been employees within this unit for many years. It is not as transient as one might assume,” said USW 1998 Casual Unit Organizer Gabriele Simmons told The Leveller.

Then on top of this, the Ontario Conservative’s Bill 124 also puts a hard cap on what gains these workers can achieve. Passed by the provincial government in 2019, the bill limits wage increases for public work sectors to approximately 1% a year. Beyond wage increases that can’t keep up with inflation, the bill makes bargaining difficult for unions because benefits must be subtracted from that capped pay increase. This limits the resources available to support paid sick days, according to an article from the Ontario Health Coalition.

“Given the constraints of Bill 124, I certainly felt in 2020 that trying to get paid six days was going to be an impossible lift,” says USW Local 1998 President Colleen Burke. “Even though it was a big priority for the committee and all of us, I didn’t really think we would be able to achieve that.”

Yet even the achievement of two paid sick days might have been impossible without the sea-change of the pandemic, which shifted traditional notions surrounding paid sick days in the workplace. The urgent need for such days became self-evident, since many of the precarious workers who lacked paid sick days were also the people who were serving the public, coming into close daily contact with people who could infect them with COVID-19.

“I think the pandemic helped to build on that public pressure that was out there,” said Burke, “with the notion that sick days are an important thing for all workers. I think if it had been a regular round of bargaining without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have achieved the sick days.”

Through the negotiations, USW 1998 also recognized a change in the way workers saw themselves — a change that is reflective of the shifting social norms that the pandemic has brought forward. 

“There was this enhanced sense of solidarity among workers,” says Simmons, “especially for folks who might not typically consider themselves a worker first. I think in having this increased visibility during the pandemic, especially within lower-paid positions and essential-type services, there was a lot more association of our membership to this wider conversation in a way that hadn’t been there prior. There were tangible and urgent concerns around health and safety. I think the language of precarity came out in a bigger way. There was a shared experience of what it means to be an employee.”

This solidarity may help workers going forwards, as they continue to negotiate their contracts. According to Burke, unionized workplaces have been safer during the pandemic because the union acts as a buffer between the employer and the employee. The union can voice concerns for health and safety on behalf of the employee and hold the employers accountable. There is a risk of punishment involved when workers negotiate with employers as individuals. 

This is particularly true when employers label workers as contract, temporary, casual, or reactive hires. These labels tend to not allow movement within the position. Casual workers are viewed as dispensable. The flimsy promise of contract renewal or a promotion to full-time work is just enough to prevent workers from standing up for themselves.

Why do employers make it difficult for employees to achieve the working conditions that they deserve? 

“The more precarity there is, the lower the pay, the fewer [the] benefits. It benefits every employer, even if it is a non-profit like the university,” says Burke. “Without being able to strongly mobilize your precarious workers, it tends to make unions weaker at the table.”

The contradiction lives on as governments continue to push bills like Bill 124, which harms the very workers it seeks to rhetorically idolize. 

Political leaders might heap praise on essential workers, but their actions are out of step with this rhetoric. According to Simmons, “There is this intentional avoidance of engaging with what it might mean to have a living wage or a stronger public health care system. It is about not really challenging the status quo.” 

While work arrangements continue to change in conjunction with the pandemic, Professor Mkandawire warns people to be cautious of the added gains that companies see from these arrangements. “Companies are saving a fortune from not having people come into the workplace,” he says. “We have to be careful that we understand the cost of that convenience and that we don’t play into the interests of exploiting workers.”

The pandemic taught people to be cautious about their surroundings and physical wellbeing. It forced unforeseen change upon the globe in a way that undeniably shifted social norms. While Canadians may not be resigning from their workplaces at the same rate as their American neighbours, they are choosing to navigate their workplaces with the same caution that they adopted for the pandemic — asking questions they haven’t asked before and banding together to advocate for equitable solutions.

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