As COVID-19 ripped through Quebec’s short-staffed and ill-prepared nursing homes at the beginning of the pandemic, David S. Landsman was among the province’s hailed “guardian angels” in health care who rushed to the front lines.
The orderly was deployed from his position on a psychiatric unit at a Montreal hospital and left his other job to work in a long-term care home in the city’s west end. Landsman was there for three months in the spring of 2020 alongside volunteers and military members.
Each day, he donned his scrubs, put on his personal protective equipment and lent a helping hand as he experienced some of the worst moments in the lives of seniors and their families.
Landsman was both a caregiver and a witness. In one instance, the health-care worker clutched an otherwise healthy and independent 90-year-old man’s hand as he struggled to breathe while his family sobbed goodbyes from Korea on a tablet. The resident had been in good shape until he contracted COVID. He died within a week.
Landsman often held patient’s hands as their loved ones, barred from entering long-term care homes, spoke to them for the last time from a distance. It was another world.
“Until this day, I have this PTSD nightmare where I’m back at the residence and roaming the halls,” Landsman said. “And I hear someone saying ‘pal, pal’ and when we go into the room they say ‘Can you prop up my pillow?’
“Because that’s all we could do. You know, we cannot give them more oxygen because they’re already on their way out.”
But in the dream, when Landsman goes to help prop up the pillow, he realizes he has no arm beyond his elbow.
When Landsman’s deployment came to an end, he was given a short break before he went back to his shifts at the hospital. But the deaths of patients and their pain stayed with him. He was exhausted from it all. On top of that, his hours were all over the place and he began to feel like a number.
“I did not feel like anything special,” Landsman said. “I felt I 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 be able to spend time with his wife and daughter.
He took on the role of patient care co-ordinator at a dental clinic, much closer to home on Montreal’s south shore. He can walk to and from the office. Landsman still gets to help patients and he’s excited to go to work. In his new role, he’s not working every evening or weekend, either.
“It was definitely the pandemic that made me re-evaluate things in life,” he said.
‘Chasing money is not the be all and end all’
Landsman is far from alone and it isn’t just health-care workers who are leaving their jobs. Experts say the health crisis has pushed workers to pivot in their careers and take stock.
Moshe Lander, an economics professor at Concordia University, notes people were thrown into uncertainty — and that “we’re all saying the pandemic has changed us in some capacity.” Faced with the rising cost of living, a labour shortage and scattered shutdowns over the past two years, workers and businesses alike are re-evaluating.
“Some people have just decided that chasing money is not the be-all and end-all,” he said.
Michael Czemerys is another Montrealer who chose to pivot during the health crisis. When the first COVID-19 wave hit, his hours were initially cut at his old job and he had time to think about his career.
“The pandemic really did, I think, make 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 the art and the community too. He decided to dive in.
“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 that this is what I want to do and I’m moving forward with it. And I think it’s been consistently like that every day.
“So it’s important to just check in with yourself. Take every every day as it comes.”
Changing jobs or opting for a different path all together can be daunting, but it’s something that human resources experts like Sherri Rabinovitch, a people and culture director, also urges workers to do. It takes courage, she said, but “oftentimes the things that are the scariest are the most worth it.”
The labour shortage has given Montrealers wiggle room too, though it has been hard on companies across different sectors.
November and December are some of the busiest months for retail stores as holidays loom, yet some in the city were forced to reduce operating hours last year due to a lack of workers. Meanwhile, curbside waste pick-up was delayed in some Montreal-area towns and cities this spring since the company was missing about 30 workers.
On a larger scale, the Quebec government announced in April an overseas hiring blitz in hopes of recruiting 3,000 workers in the next year. Labour Minister Jean Boulet also recently formed a committee to look at reports that an increasing number of children aged 11 to 14 were joining the workforce as a result of persistent labour shortages.
That crunch isn’t going away anytime soon. Rabinovitch doesn’t anticipate it slowing down before 2025.
“I really don’t I don’t how know how we would find all these bodies to fill all the jobs.”
Rising housing costs, language law also at play
Montreal, which was once seen as an affordable city and optimal for work-life balance, is changing. Once hailed as a haven for renters, a housing crisis has changed that and vacancy rates sit around three per cent in the city. For potential homeowners, even as the number of sales starts to dip, there has been a surge in prices both for condominiums and single-family homes.
The job market is also exacerbated by people looking for some kind of certainty, according to Lander.
In some cases, people are worried their jobs will soon be automated or they are expendable if there is another pandemic-induced lockdown. In other cases Lander notes, some workers realize their salaries aren’t enough to get into the housing market or to buy things they once thought attainable.
“And if you start to realize that all of your efforts are not allowing you to be a consumer in the way that you want, then why are you doing it?” Lander said.
In Montreal, and more broadly Quebec, another factor that could result in workers looking for opportunities elsewhere is Bill 96, a new law aimed to strengthen and protect the French language. The government has defended its legislation — which includes tougher language requirements for companies, schools and immigrants — describing it as “moderate.”
It is 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 that 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,” he said. “And then there’s this new bill coming in, (it seems) scary to me. So that’s part of it as well.”
The Quebec government’s approach to policy is partly to blame for the labour shortages that appear here compared with other provinces, according to Lander. Bill 96 is not only “heavy handed” but the government is “very harsh” about language requirements — especially for workers who may be interested in moving here — when it should be using softer encouragement and trying to entice workers, he added.
“You start introducing these extra requirements or start 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 jobs, Lander said. But workers are also now on the hunt for employment that suits their exact specifications, whether that be a certain schedule, benefits, the option to work remotely or otherwise. In fact, a recent Ipsos poll found 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 issue — especially with premiums for working night shifts. In his new role, there was a pay cut but he has found a better work-life balance.
“Now I feel a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to come to work,” Landsman said.
Jumping to acting was also the right call for Czemerys. Not only is he passionate about what he does, but there have been well-paid and exciting opportunities along that way — and this is just the beginning. He encourages others to follow their passions, so long as they can pay the bills.
“Even though I probably wouldn’t be making as much money or as comfortable, you know in the short term, I think overall I would be more happy pursuing acting and going down that road as much as I can,” Czemerys said.
— With files from Global News Morning and The Canadian Press