When COVID-19 swept through Quebec’s ill-prepared and understaffed nursing homes at the start of the pandemic, David S. Landsman was among the province’s acclaimed “guardian angels” in health care who They ran to the front.
The stretcher bearer was sent from his post to a psychiatric unit at a Montreal hospital and left his other job to work at a nursing home on the west end of the city. Landsman was there for more than two months in the spring of 2020 along with volunteers and military.
Every day, she dressed in her gown, put on her personal protective equipment, and lent a helping hand as she experienced some of the worst moments in the lives of seniors and their families.
Landsman was both a caretaker and a witness. In one case, the health worker grabbed the hand of an otherwise healthy and independent 90-year-old man as he gasped for breath as his family sobbed goodbye from Korea on a tablet. The resident had been in good shape until he contracted COVID. He died within a week.
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Landsman often held patients’ hands as their loved ones, who had been barred from entering long-term care homes, spoke to them one last time from a distance. It was another world.
“To this day, I have this PTSD nightmare where I’m back in the residence and wandering the halls,” Landsman said. “And I hear someone say ‘friend, friend’ and when we walk into the room they say ‘Can you pick up my pillow?’
“Because that’s all we could do. You know, we can’t give them more oxygen because they’re already coming out.”
When Landsman’s deployment came to an end, he was given a short break before returning to his shifts at the hospital. But the deaths of the patients and his pain stayed with him. He was exhausted by everything. On top of that, his hours were all over the place and he began to feel like a number.
“I wasn’t in the mood for anything special,” Landsman said. “I felt like it was expendable.”
Landsman is among those who changed jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. With his first child on the way, he found a new opportunity in November 2021 where he would not only feel valued but he could spend time with his wife and daughter.
He took on the role of patient care coordinator at a dental clinic much closer to home on the south shore of Montreal. He can walk to and from the office. Landsman is still able to help patients and is excited to go to work. In his new position, he doesn’t work every night or every weekend either.
“It was definitely the pandemic that made me reevaluate things in life,” he said.
‘Chasing money is not the beginning and end of everything’
Landsman is far from alone and it’s not just healthcare workers who are leaving their jobs. Experts say the health crisis has pushed workers to turn their careers around and take stock.
Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University, points out that people have been plunged into uncertainty and that “we all say that the pandemic has changed us in some way.” Faced with rising cost of living, labor shortages and scattered closures over the past two years, workers and businesses alike are reevaluating.
“Some people have just decided that chasing money is not the beginning and the end,” he said.
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Michael Czemerys is another Montrealer who chose to pivot during the health crisis. When the first wave of COVID-19 hit, his hours were initially reduced at his old job and he had time to think about his career.
“I think the pandemic really got me thinking about what I want in my life,” he said.
With a background in communications and visual effects, he had worked behind the scenes, but Czemerys lights up when he talks about acting. He loves art and the community too. He decided to dive.
“I mean, who knows what’s going to happen in the future… Maybe it will change,” he said. “But I think right now I realize this is what I want to do and I’m moving forward with it. And I think it’s been consistently that way every day.
“So it’s important that you only check with yourself. Take each day as it comes.”
Changing jobs or opting for a different path can be daunting, but it’s something human resources experts like Sherri Rabinovitch, chief people and culture officer, also urges workers to do. It takes courage, she said, but “often the scariest things are the most worthwhile.”
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The labor shortage has also given Montrealers wiggle room, though it has been difficult for businesses in different sectors.
November and December are some of the busiest months for retail stores as the holidays approach, however some in the city were forced to cut operating hours last year due to a lack of workers. Meanwhile, curbside waste collection was delayed in some Montreal-area towns and cities this spring as the company lost about 30 workers.
On a larger scale, the Quebec government in April announced an overseas recruitment blitz in hopes of hiring 3,000 workers next year. Labor Minister Jean Boulet also recently formed a committee to look into reports that increasing numbers of 11- to 14-year-olds were entering the labor force as a result of persistent labor shortages.
That creak isn’t going away any time soon. Rabinovitch does not anticipate that it will slow down before 2025.
“Not really, I don’t know how we would find all these bodies to fill all the jobs.”
Rising housing costs, language law also at stake
Montreal, once seen as an affordable and optimal city for work-life balance, is changing. Once hailed as a renter’s paradise, a housing crisis has changed that, with vacancy rates hovering around three percent in the city. For prospective homeowners, even as the number of sales begins to decline, there has been an increase in prices for both condos and single-family homes.
The job market is also being exacerbated by people looking for some kind of certainty, according to Lander.
In some cases, people worry that their jobs will soon be automated or that they will be expendable if there is another pandemic-induced lockdown. In other cases, Lander notes, some workers find that their wages aren’t enough to break into the housing market or buy things they once thought they could afford.
“And if you start to realize that all your efforts are not allowing you to be a consumer in the way that you want to be, then why are you doing it?” Lander said.
Newcomers call Quebec Bill 96 clause absurd and discouraging
In Montreal, and more broadly in Quebec, another factor that could cause workers to seek opportunities elsewhere is Bill 96, a new law aimed at strengthening and protecting the French language. The government has defended its legislation, which includes stricter language requirements for businesses, schools and immigrants, describing it as “moderate”.
But companies are worried. In June, a group of tech companies called on the government to stop the bill, saying requiring immigrants to learn French within six months is unrealistic.
It’s a concern for Czemerys, who grew up in western Canada. She plans to move to Vancouver, where her family is and where there are more opportunities for English-speaking actors.
“I don’t speak French very well. I’ve been here for a while and I’ve been able to work in English, but I haven’t really had the drive to learn French that well,” she said. “And then there is the entry of this new bill, (it seems) scary to me. So that’s also part of that.”
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The Quebec government’s policy focus is partly to blame for the labor shortages that appear here compared to the provinces, according to Lander. Not only is Bill 96 “heavy-handed,” but the government is “very tough” on language requirements, especially for workers who may be interested in moving here, when it should use a softer stimulus and try to attract workers, he added.
“You start to introduce these additional requirements or you start to label certain jobs that can’t be for certain people,” Lander said. “Yes, it is discriminatory and it is not discriminatory in a positive way.”
‘Now I feel a breath of fresh air’
Most people tolerate their jobs, Lander said. But workers are also now on the hunt for jobs that fit their exact specifications, whether it’s a set schedule, benefits, the option to work remotely or otherwise. In fact, a recent Ipsos survey found that many Canadians want to continue working from home, and about one in three are willing to change jobs to do so.
For Landsman, his salary as an orderly wasn’t the problem, especially with the bonuses for working night shifts. In her new position, there was a pay cut, but she has found a better balance between work and personal life.
“Now I feel a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to come to work,” Landsman said.
Jumping into acting was also the right decision for Czemerys. Not only is he passionate about what he does, but there have been exciting and well-paying opportunities along the way, and this is just the beginning. He encourages others to follow their passions, as long as they can pay the bills.
“Even though I probably wouldn’t make as much money or feel as comfortable, you know, in the short term, I think overall I’d be happier to continue acting and go down that road as long as I can,” Czemerys said.
—WWith archives from Global News Morning and The Canadian Press
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