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Working in a Pandemic: Stories of Anxiety, Uncertainty, Poverty and Kindness

We asked readers to share their experiences as COVID-19 hit. Here’s a sample.

Tyee readers 30 Mar

The Tyee’s readers inform this site with their tips, insights and wisdom. We are very much in this together.

Last week, we asked you to share stories about the pandemic’s effect on your work lives.

We wanted to know how readers were dealing with layoffs or business closures, coping with uncertainty and being treated by employers.

We hoped that sharing these stories and your ideas would help in this crisis — if only in reminding us all that we are in this together.

Here are some of the responses. Thanks to everyone who wrote.

The virus took away my dream job

I’m sure my story is a pretty common one by now. COVID-19 has decimated my potential income stream.

Last summer, I got a dream job as a tour director for a major multinational. This was gonna be the best summer of my life, at age 61.

Not so much now.

In fact, I’m broke, jobless, over 60 and have pre-existing lung conditions. As much as the virus doesn’t terrify me, I am hesitant to take any work that would put me in touch with the public.

So at this point, I’m hoping for government income support… and a miracle.

Days of anxiety for an oil sands family

I have had pretty severe anxiety during this crisis because my husband works in the oil sands and is still being expected to fly across the province and go to work in a camp setting. He and I have both been horribly worried about his health, the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to others if he ends up carrying it, the concern of him getting it from travelling and being in camp.

Yet he has not been laid off and he can’t stop going for fear we will not be able to afford our bills and put food on our table. 

These are very uncertain times and I wish there were some way to shut everything down except essential services until we get this contained and resolved. Until he is back home with me, I'll be living in anxiety every day, worrying. 

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Public transit in Vancouver has shifted to free fares as drivers continue providing their essential service. Photo by Joshua Berson.

The lack of information is troubling

I work in public schools and not every district seems to be giving out the same message to their school district staff.

A friend of mine on Vancouver Island said the message they’ve received is that no one is to work or go near it until further notice. My district in the southern Interior, on the other hand, has ordered all staff to report to work when spring break ends.  

The term “report to work” is quite vague and the message is being interpreted differently by different staff.

My shop steward told me that no one knows for sure what this is going to look like, but it appears some staff may be working from home. Others have told me that “reporting to work” does not necessarily mean going to school, it may mean phoning in.

And teachers are paid no matter what, but all non-teachers will have to go on EI, which sucks.

I’m a bit confused about what seem like mixed directions. Nobody wants to go on EI, but we obviously can’t be together in school buildings.

Out-of-work in a time of no jobs

I worked at a popular theme bar in Vancouver — I’ve been a loyal, hard worker for the past three years and have recently returned to work after fighting cancer. I’ve used all my EI benefits while trying to keep myself out of debt as I did chemo. I had been back at work three months when my employer decided to terminate me without cause in preparation for the layoffs a pandemic might make necessary in the service industry. I can’t job hunt in my industry during this pandemic. Cancer and recovery has eaten up most of my savings. I don’t know how I’ll fare the coming months. 

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Business closures leave employees with no income and no prospects. Photo by Joshua Berson.

Strain and confusion for teacher and students

I'm supposed to go back to work as a high school teacher today. My employers currently say they don't honestly know what that will look like, since students aren’t coming back to classroom until the end of April at the earliest.

They do know that they’ll reject my use of sick days because I'll be self-isolating until Wednesday. I’m self-isolating because my son is self-isolating. He’s self-isolating because he came back from Boston last Tuesday night after his college closed and ordered everyone out of his dorm.

My employers say that our contract doesn’t cover self-isolation unless a teacher is actually sick. That position contradicts the health-and-safety-first message just sent to all teachers by the minister of education and our provincial union president.

And that’s just me. The students I teach are newcomers: all new to school in English and life in Canada, some new to regular school, and some to life in a city. Some couldn’t go home for March break because their home countries are locked down: they won’t see their families for months. Others went home before the flight bans, but won’t come back to finish their school year. 

And almost none of my families, who are barely navigating their new lives here, have anything like my income or a union that fought for decent working conditions. Our school has a breakfast and lunch program that fed a lot of my students. It also has connections to mental health, tutoring and out-of-school youth outreach programs. Now one parent needs to quit work to look after the younger students… if they haven't been laid off already. 

I live in a province run by the NDP and Doug Ford, of all people, closed all Ontario schools sooner than we did. 

Stay calm — be brave — wait for the signs!

Sacrificing work hours to keep clients safe

I am a 66-year-old semi-retired nurse’s aide working part-time in a home care setting. I have three clients, and although COVID 19 has not reached Quadra Island yet, I have decided to only work with one client — technically at one site — which is what the health authority has always enforced in hospitals and seniors’ homes when there is a highly contagious disease like Norwalk. 

My hours have been cut in half but I think I can manage even in the long-term because my husband and I both receive modest pensions. 

However, I am experiencing a lot of anxiety these days when I see and hear people not taking this epidemic seriously. Their cavalier attitude puts us all at risk! I find myself yelling at the radio at the stupidity of some people. 

I have a large vegetable garden but I am very leery about going out and buying seeds, not to mention grocery shopping or getting gas, as I care for a gentleman with chronic respiratory issues and my husband has just come through radiation treatment for prostate cancer. 

If I do go out, it will be early in the morning and, when I return, I will have a shower and throw every item of clothing I have on in the wash. 

Anyone not taking this epidemic seriously by staying at home and only going out for supplies and practising good hygiene and physical distancing is being completely irresponsible and immoral. With all the technology available to us, you can hardly suggest we are really socially isolated. 

The sooner we put a lid on this epidemic, the sooner we can get back to normal. In the meantime, I am enjoying the quiet, the birds singing, the wolves howling, cooking, baking bread, reading, puttering in the garden. 

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How closely are employers attending to safety for their employees and customers? Reports from Tyee readers were mixed. Photo by Joshua Berson.

‘They let me work from home’

So how does Theytus Books do things right?

They let me work from home. They asked me if I wanted that option because my immune system is compromised by pre-existing conditions. Instead of putting our community or family in danger by continuing to come into work, they let me self-isolate.

Most of my work can be done from home and they let me work on the honour system while we continue on in the face of uncertainty for as long as we can. 

I am spending quality time with my youngest daughter and she brings me great peace in these troubled times. I read our books to her and it takes us away from this reality. I am still working on the new books and finding new ways of connecting to our readers.

The stories of our people are carried on by the survivors.

Because they let me stay home I might be one.

Because they let me stay home you might be one.

My employer wouldn’t listen

I live in a northern community and work in a grocery store. In early January, I approached my store manager and asked if the company had any policies for the store and employees on pandemics. I was told no. As the virus progressed in China, I became very concerned because I could see how the store could be a “community spreader.” I continued to ask my manager about a plan for the employees.

By this time I had started to wear gloves and brought a face mask with me and had started to wear it around my neck. I had been talking with friends and customers who were also discussing COVID-19 and what was going on in the grocery stores around the province.

On March 3, I was called into the office where the manager, assistant manager and union steward were waiting for me. I was told there were complaints about me from staff and customers. I was questioned about my conversations with people on COVID-19, why I was wearing a mask, told I was scaring people, jeopardizing 30 peoples’ jobs and that my opinions were not appropriate. I was told they were happy with my work ethic, but I was not happy and I should find another job. I was suspended for five days without pay. The last thing I said before leaving was “is there any word from head office on this? Or are they going to wait for us to start dropping?” I was told no word. As of yesterday the employees were still not wearing masks and gloves and social distancing was at a minimum.

I am the main income earner in our family. My husband is on a disability and has a compromised immune system. I am off on stress leave at the moment and have applied for EI, but of course that relief is many weeks away. I earn minimum wage — $14.05 — and my check is only going to be 55 per cent of my earnings, which is going to keep us in far worse poverty than we already live in.

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Doing a job that suddenly seems safer than working on the ground around others, a window washer in downtown Vancouver on March 18. Photo by Joshua Berson.

When things looked bleakest, company came through

I'm one of the lucky ones. I work in resource extraction — one of the industries taking a hard hit right now — and two weeks ago it looked like we were all getting laid off. Boom, 1,000 people done for. Mines were and are shutting down every day, and with three kids to keep alive, it was a scary few days.

The uncertainty around infections, flights, pay cheques and loved ones led all of us to speculate like crazy, like everyone else was doing. But even as things changed on a seemingly hourly basis, our senior managers kept us informed. When it looked like we were on the brink of being shut down forever, the surprising decision was made to keep going and stockpile everything we can. I guess it’s hard to train a workforce for specialized underground work and it’s costly to mothball a mine under a lake. In the end, it’s worth more to keep us operating until the world rebounds.

There were some changes made to limit travel (now we’re working one month on, one off), some restrictions in camp for distancing and cleanliness and our most vulnerable people were sent home with pay. But, while economies burn, I’m lucky to be bringing a cheque home like I did before. And, to make things even rosier, our management was so appreciative of our collective calm and reciprocal respect that they’re paying us double for the unexpected additional time we have to put in. Two weeks ago, we looked doomed and I had to wonder about how to feed the kids in the most horrid housing market in Canada. Today, I don't have to and we are all immensely thankful for that. 

From a hospital kitchen

My job is to supervise the operation of a hospital kitchen. 

On the second day of the city-wide restaurant closure in Vancouver, I leaned forward and pressed my hands on the desk, looking at our work schedule and trying to swap my staff around. One worker asked to leave early due to “an uncomfortable something in the eye.” I agreed and unpinned the schedule from the bulletin board, hoping to find someone to cover the rest of her shift.

But I don’t know who to call. Six days ago, the prime minister announced a compulsory self-isolation order for returning residents. At that point, two workers from this kitchen have gone for oversea vacations.

It was 11 a.m., and the lunch service was starting in half an hour. There are about 150 residents in this long-term care hospital facility, and all of them are seniors. In 30 minutes, the elderly would gather in the dining room, expecting trays of food to be served on tables. I paced around in the office, tapping on the back of chairs, worrying that the lunch could be delayed by a missing staff.

Nevertheless, I knew my situation was not the worst. Our company runs several hospital kitchens in Vancouver. Fearing further outbreaks, the head office had banned staff-sharing between sites, allowing employees to choose only one site. As a result, some kitchens’ work schedules were half-empty. 

I ran out of ideas, pulled out my phone and was about to text my boss for a solution. Suddenly, an afternoon co-worker appeared in the office. He’d decided to come in early. And he had a solution. 

“Call Cathy. She’s available now.” Cathy was one of the staff who had worked at multiple sites.

“She used to have a shift at another site, but she chose us and is now standing by with more availability,” he said.

Crisis solved. Though I feel sorry for this other site. 

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Holding down a post at the quieted, but still functioning Vancouver International Airport on March 28. Photo by Joshua Berson.

Acts of kindness in a crisis

My husband works in and manages a retail store on Vancouver Island which has closed due to COVID-19. The owner of the store has been wonderful. They’ve purchased grocery store gift cards for each employee to ensure they are able to buy food during the time before benefits kick in. The owner has also offered to help those employees who are short on rent or mortgage payments.

A Facebook friend of mine also on the Island recently posted that her landlord reduced her rent without being asked just because of COVID-19. In the midst of a lot of greed, selfishness and and disruption, there are signs of hope and people supporting one another.

Why hasn’t construction stopped?

I want to know why, when I am staying home as requested, there are people below my house pounding away, driving piles I think, constructing new berths at the Westridge Trans Mountain marine terminal. The noise level is unacceptable; even with all my doors and windows shut it is competing with my radio. The noise causes more anxiety as I do not know when it will stop. The noise is intolerable and I have to leave — but where do I go? All public facilities are closed.

There is no way that constructing the new berths can be considered an essential service.

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Grocers chance risks to provide fresh produce to the public. The scene at a Burnaby market on March 18. Photo by Chris Cheung.

Living through the year from hell

My wife is a certified dental assistant and all dental offices are closed — no work.

My eldest son is working still but layoff looms next week — chilling.

My youngest son is in Grade 12, and it looks like there will be no school, no graduation — bad news.

I am immunity impaired so I have been isolating myself as best I can.

Already 2020 is the year from hell: a year for fiscal worries; a year of academic disappointment.

But, watching the gong show happening in the U.S., with a questionable president and even more questionable government, provides almost comic relief.

I appreciate the workers at my ‘old folks home’

I am not out in the business world. I live in an “old folks home,” though we don’t call it that. We must be up to date and modern.

First let me rant my disgust with the people who are hoarding and disregarding social distancing. Some young people have never had to obey anyone — at home or in school or in today’s society. I commend the vast majority who are responsible citizens. This is a time when we should all pull together and obey our chosen leaders, such as Dr. Bonnie Henry.

At almost 94, I think I can speak for a lot of people in different care facilities who are unable to voice an opinion.

Last week, I noticed things started changing. From Monday on, every day saw a new directive from the owners in Vancouver. By Wednesday, I witnessed big changes in the dining room as we started social distancing and sat just two to a table. Wednesday evening at dinner, I was told things were changing again and the next day they would implement room service only. Everyone to stay in their rooms, the dining room closed.

Early Thursday morning, there was a knock on my door and outside were three dining room staff members with a trolley of food. For me, they had scrambled eggs and bacon, coffee with cream and juice — apple, orange or cranberry.

I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and delightful staff.

It is now Monday of a new week and once again I enjoyed my room service breakfast. I realize this could get boring after a few weeks or months of being confined. I am being realistic. It could last a year! I am very impressed with the staff at Lakeside Gardens. They acted swiftly once orders were received from the owners of the facilities.

I served during the Second World War and have a small amount of knowledge of what is expected of citizens in time of crisis. Thank you for all you are doing keeping us up to date.

Cheers, Eileen.  [Tyee]

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