As COVID-19 ravaged understaffed and ill-prepared nursing homes across Quebec at the start of the pandemic, David S. Landsman was among the province’s healthcare “guardian angels” who rushed to the front line.
The nurse was transferred from his position in a psychiatric unit at a Montreal hospital and left his other job to work in a long-term care home in the west of the city. Landsman was there for over two months in the spring of 2020 alongside volunteers and military.
Every day he put on his lab coat, put on his personal protective equipment and lent a helping hand as he lived through some of the worst times in the lives of seniors and their families.
Landsman was both caregiver and witness. In one case, the healthcare worker clutched the hand of an otherwise healthy and independent 90-year-old man as he struggled to breathe while his family sobbed goodbye from Korea on a tablet. The resident was in good shape until he contracted COVID. He died within a week.
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Landsman often held hands with patients as loved ones, barred from entering long-term care homes, spoke to them for the last time from a distance. It was another world.
“To this day, I have this PTSD nightmare where I’m back at residence and wandering the halls,” Landsman said. “And I hear someone say ‘homie, homie’ and when we walk into the room they say ‘Can you wedge my pillow?
“Because that’s all we could do. You know, we can’t give them more oxygen because they’re already going out.
When Landsman’s deployment ended, he had a short break before resuming his shifts at the hospital. But the death of the patients and their pain stayed with him. He was exhausted by it all. On top of that, his hours were all over the place and he was starting to feel like a number.
“I was nothing special,” Landsman said. “I felt useless.”
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 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 continues to help patients and is excited to go to work. In his new role, he also does not work every evening or every weekend.
“It’s definitely the pandemic that has made me re-evaluate things in life,” he said.
“The hunt for money is not the end of everything”
Landsman is far from alone, and it’s not just healthcare workers who are quitting their jobs. Experts say the health crisis has caused workers to pivot in their careers and take stock.
Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University, notes that people have been thrown into uncertainty — and that “we all say the pandemic has changed us to some degree.” Faced with rising costs of living, a labor shortage and scattered shutdowns over the past two years, workers and businesses are reassessing themselves.
“Some people have just decided that chasing money isn’t the ultimate solution,” 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 to his old job and he had time to think about his career.
“I think the pandemic has really made me think 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 that’s going to change,” he said. “But I think right now I realize that’s what I want to do and I’m moving forward with that. And I think it’s always been like that every day.
“So it’s important to just 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, director of people and culture, are also urging workers to do. It takes courage, she says, but “often the scariest things are the most worth it.”
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The labor shortage has also given Montrealers leeway, even if it has been difficult for businesses in different sectors.
November and December are among the busiest months for retail stores as the holidays approach, but some in the city were forced to reduce opening hours last year due to a lack of workers. Meanwhile, curbside garbage collection was delayed in some Montreal-area cities this spring because the company was short of about 30 workers.
On a larger scale, the Quebec government announced an overseas hiring campaign in April with the hope of recruiting 3,000 workers next year. Labor Minister Jean Boulet also recently formed a committee to look into reports that increasing numbers of children aged 11-14 are joining the labor market due to continuing labor shortages. .
That creak isn’t going away anytime soon. Rabinovitch does not foresee a slowdown before 2025.
“I really don’t know how we would find all these bodies to fill all the jobs.”
Rising housing costs, language law also at stake
Montreal, which was once perceived as an affordable and optimal city for work-life balance, is changing. Once hailed as a haven for renters, a housing crisis has changed the game and vacancy rates are hovering around 3% in the city. For potential owners, even though the number of sales is starting to drop, prices for condominiums and single-family homes have soared.
The job market is also exacerbated by people looking for some kind of certainty, according to Lander.
In some cases, people fear that their work will soon be automated or that they will be lost if there is another pandemic-induced lockdown. In other cases, Lander notes, some workers realize that their wages are not enough to enter the housing market or to buy things they once thought were feasible.
“And if you’re starting to realize that all your hard work isn’t getting you to be a consumer the way you want, then why are you doing it?” says Lander.
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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 – calling it “moderate”.
But businesses are worried. In June, a group of tech companies called on the government to suspend the bill, saying it was unrealistic to require immigrants to learn French within six months.
That’s a concern for Czemerys, who grew up in Western Canada. He plans to move to Vancouver, where his 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 will to learn French as well,” he said. “And then there’s this new bill that’s coming, (it seems to me) scary. So that’s part of that too.”
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The political approach of the Quebec government is partly responsible for the labor shortages that appear here compared to the provinces, according to Lander. Bill 96 is not only ‘heavyweight’, but the government is ‘very tough’ on language requirements – especially for workers who might be interested in moving here – when it should be using softer encouragement and try to attract workers, he added.
“You start introducing these additional requirements or labeling certain jobs that can’t be for certain people,” Lander said. “Yeah, it’s discriminatory and it’s not discriminatory in a positive way.”
“Now I feel a breath of fresh air”
Most people tolerate their work, Lander said. But workers are also now looking for a job that matches their exact specifications, whether it’s a certain schedule, benefits, the ability to work remotely, or whatever. In fact, a recent Ipsos poll 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 nursing salary wasn’t the problem, especially with bonuses for night shifts. In his new role, there was a pay cut but he found a better work-life balance.
“Now I feel a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to come to work,” Landsman said.
Switching to acting was also the right move for Czemerys. Not only is he passionate about what he does, but there have been some high-paying and exciting opportunities along the way – and that’s 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 be as comfortable, you know, in the short term, I think overall I’d be happier to keep playing and go down this path as much as possible,” Czemerys said.
—Wwith files from Global News Morning and The Canadian Press
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