Where are the workers?

Illustrations: Alexander MacAskill

There are plenty of Haligonians looking for jobs — but employers can’t take them for granted anymore 

Kevin Kelloway has a message for employers, and it’s not one they necessarily want to hear: “You’re not calling the shots anymore.” 

A professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s University, Kelloway is a former Canada Research Chair in occupational health psychology. “It’s very much an employee’s market. So you’re going to start seeing employees flex their muscle,” he says. “They’re going to do that as individuals by choosing not to work at certain places, or just quitting jobs if they’re treated poorly. And you’re going to see it collectively through more unionization.” 

The sectors most affected by shutdowns in the early days of the pandemic — restaurants, retail, and tourism — all relied on face-to-face contact, and had a workforce that was lower paid than average, often with female and racialized workers. 

Katherine Hillman is one of those workers. She lives in the North End and was working a retail job in Bedford before the pandemic. A NSCAD University graduate, she had hoped to find something better, but describes retail as “a hard hole to dig your way out of.” Low wages mean workers can’t afford to quit while looking for work, and long hours at a physically demanding job mean there’s little free time or energy for a job search.

CERB was “a godsend,” Hillman says. The government assistance allowed her to pay rent during the spring and summer of 2020, and save a bit. And that gave her the freedom to be selective about a new job, instead of taking the first thing that came along out of desperation. In fall 2020, she accepted a customer service job that allows her to work from home. 

“A huge benefit of it was I can get up, I can do this job from home, and I don’t have to worry about catching COVID,” Hillman says. “I like the flexibility of it. You can get up and work in your pyjamas if you want to. I can schedule breaks to go for walks, get outside, do other errands. There isn’t two hours of commuting every day, so I get that time back to use however I want. It’s very much improved my mental health, physical health, and emotional well-being, for sure.” 

You’ve probably read endless variations on the trope “people don’t want to work anymore.” The gist, generally without any supporting evidence, is that young people are lazy, or they were so spoiled by pandemic benefits they didn’t want to get back into the job market. 

But Lars Osberg, an economics professor at Dalhousie, has a different perspective on the labour shortage. 

“Is this a bad thing? To have jobs chasing people rather than people chasing jobs?” he asks. “From the point of view of the vast majority of the population who depend on rising wages to pay their bills, a labour shortage is good news … A labour-shortage economy transfers power from employers to workers.” 

If you’re an employer trying to find workers, it’s an inconvenience, but it’s a boon for the thousands of Nova Scotian workers struggling on the brink of poverty. “For some people in the real world, it’s actually quite a good thing that there is scarcity of workers and employers have to try harder to make their jobs attractive,” he adds.

Willow Raven (her professional name) is one of the many workers to shift to something more satisfying during the pandemic. She quit her job when her employer wanted her to come back into the office. She had been in alumni relations for two different Halifax universities, and remembers the work as “very hectic.” At one point, she says, she went six weeks without a day off. While on stress leave, Raven decided to test the waters as a sex worker, setting up an OnlyFans account.

“I decided if I could get 24 subscribers in the first 24 hours, I’d keep it for about a month and see how it goes. In the first 12 hours, I got 50 subscribers,” Raven recalls. 

She still kept her university job, working remotely in the first year and a half of the pandemic. “I loved working from home. “I found it so much more productive and just a lot healthier overall, because I wasn’t rushing in the mornings. I wasn’t eating trash because I didn’t have time to make lunch,” she says. 

But when her employer insisted she return to the office, Raven was unwilling. “We’ve proven that people can be functional and productive outside of an office environment,” she says. “I don’t understand why it has such a hold on people. It definitely did help me realize how much I loved the independence of working from home. And now I get to do it all the time.”

Her new job sometimes involves working evenings and weekends, but she doesn’t mind because it’s on her own terms. Raven is a professional wrestling fan, and so are many of her subscribers. She does photo shoots, themed days (music on Mondays, professional wrestling on Wednesdays), private video and sexting sessions, and chats with subscribers, while also managing her social media.

“I usually do two to three days of content creation a week, where I’m actually photographing or shooting content, and then a couple of days where I just do admin work, I schedule all my posts, and write blogs,” she says. 

Like Raven, growing numbers of Halifax workers are realizing they don’t have to settle for unfulfilling jobs. “When you look at the labour market right at the moment, vacancies are remarkably high in historical terms in relation to the unemployment numbers,” Osberg says.

Kelloway says the labour shortage “cuts across different sectors” and “nobody knows exactly what’s going on.” But he can point to several factors.

Nova Scotia has an aging population, which has meant retirements, particularly in the skilled trades. Meanwhile, in health care, Kelloway says, “A lot of people, through the pandemic, decided that’s it for them.” And in hospitality jobs with low wages and poor working condition, many employees who were “disrupted during the pandemic just didn’t come back.”

At Halifax Stanfield International Airport, staffing levels have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to Leah Batstone, the airport’s communications advisor. “We are not immune to the labour shortage,” she says. “Some of the restaurants want to open later but can’t because they don’t have the staff.”

In late July, the job-search website indeed.com showed dozens of job openings at the airport, several marked “urgently hiring” or “hiring multiple candidates.” The airport even organized a job fair to help commercial tenants recruit talent. 

The impacts of the pandemic continue, Batstone says: “All the food and beverage businesses at the airport, the hotels out here, the companies that handle the luggage handling — everyone was impacted during the pandemic, because for a while there was very little activity here.”

Nova Scotia Health is one of the city’s largest employers, and has plenty of vacancies. In July 2022, the health authority had a total of 1,816 vacant positions in its Central Zone, up from 612 two years earlier. That same month, the NSH was looking to hire 633 registered nurses (up from 224 in 2020), 145 licensed practical nurses (up from 22), and 175 administrators (up from 67 two years earlier). 

In an email, spokesperson Brendan Elliott notes that these numbers don’t necessarily reflect a mass exodus. “In some cases, net new positions have been added, which could account for an increase in one month without it necessarily meaning someone left a position,” he says. There are also parental and other leaves of absence. Still, the increase in vacancies for some positions is striking.

At Halifax Transit, staffing shortages were so acute this summer that managers cut many route schedules and cancelled some stops. 

One thing is clear: job openings are not the result of a mass movement of people just quitting and opting out of the workforce, Osberg says. “Canadian data never did support the great resignation.” In addition to retirements, which represent “a gradual change,” he notes that immigration dropped off dramatically in 2020 and 2021, meaning fewer people entering the workforce. Now, it “is starting to tick back up again.”

Flexibility is the key to hiring these days, says Scott Newnham. He’s the director of operations for the Firkin Group of Pubs, which operates nearly two dozen outlets, mostly in and around Toronto, plus at the Halifax airport. 

“You’re just not finding people available to work who have experience, so we have no choice but to hire people who are more of a fit soft-skill wise and train them to do the day-to-day tasks,” Newnham says. He recognizes “it’s an employee’s market,” so Firkin is offering “signing bonuses, even for hourly staff.” 

“People know there are multiple restaurants, and they have the pick of the litter,” he says. At the same time, several positions the company had open in late July paid as little as $14.50 an hour. 

All this means it’s a great time to be looking for a job. Recent graduates don’t face the same gut-churning uncertainty over whether they’ll find work that they did just a few years ago. 

Cassidy Boudreau recently graduated in public relations from Nova Scotia Community College, and works for a Halifax-based organization in the tech sector. Unravel agreed to not use her real name, so she could speak frankly about her employer. 

Before graduating, Boudreau was “scared” of the prospect of searching for her first full-time professional job. But the reality was “definitely less daunting” than she expected: “There are so many comms jobs … Everybody I talk to from my class got jobs immediately.”

Boudreau had specific requirements she was looking for: a competitive salary, a good benefits package, free parking, “and flexibility to work from home, if I wanted to.”

Although her employer promised she could work from home at least part of the time, Boudreau says it turned out they don’t have a hybrid work policy. When asked why working from home is important to her, Boudreau says, “It has become increasingly clear to me that I really value a good work-life balance. And if you’re spending all your time commuting, if I can’t go to the gym or spend time with my boyfriend, or cook dinner and do all the things that I actually want to do outside of work, then it’s not a very good balance.”

Boudreau says if her employer doesn’t let her work part-time from home after three months, she’ll look for another job, and she’s not worried about finding one. 

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