Is there a pandemic labour movement?

Experts disagree on the degree to which widespread departures are affecting talent pools in Canadian workplaces

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If U.S. employers are navigating a so-called Great Resignation as workers depart en masse for greener pastures, Nicole Davidson would like to think of Canada as going through a great rethink.

“I believe that pandemic really gave us an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities,” said the CEO of Vancouver-based Beacon HR Inc., whose company provides human resources and recruiting services.

“And what we saw was people revisiting what’s important to them from family time to remote work to their commutes.… Now the cobwebs have been shaken off a little bit and those job-seekers are ready to make a move.”

Since the outset of the pandemic, about four million Americans have quit their jobs as of April compared with 130,000 Canadians who’ve done so as of May, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Statistics Canada, respectively.

With the U.S. having about 10 times the population of Canada, it appears Americans are exiting at a rate roughly three times that of their northern neighbours.

“It is a tad overblown in Canada,” Davidson said of the Great Resignation phenomenon. “We’ve felt a shift in the last six months, but nowhere near to the same extent as in the U.S.”

“That said, I do believe a wave is going to come for us September through November.”

While many people stuck with their jobs at the outset of the pandemic due to the economic uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, Davidson believes workers will be able to better manage the fourth wave brought on by the Delta variant as vaccinations climb and vaccine passports are deployed.

But Adam Greenberg, CEO of tech company MakeShift (subsidiary of AppColony Inc.), said the Delta variant has the potential to accelerate departures rather than delay them.

His company specializes in software for scheduling shift workers, managing fatigue and overtime rules and tracking time and attendance records.

“Retail, food, sports and recreation employees are being tasked with enforcing masking, social distancing and, soon, proof of vaccination in order to access services,” he said.

“[That] puts an enormous burden on what are typically low-wage employees who themselves are at a heightened risk of exposure to a deadly and highly transmissible virus.”

He does not believe talk of a Great Resignation in Canada is overblown.

“We need to pay more attention to this here and ensure that government and industry are working together to solve this problem before it gets worse,” Greenberg said.

But Davidson said employers must also consider that the Great Resignation will be industry-specific to varying degrees.

Many players in the tech industry are quickly adapting by staving off the departures of key players by paying top dollar for a select few and “letting other B-players move on,” she said.

“We’re also seeing some employers are starting to think about over-hiring for September, October, November. They’re predicting that they will have more resignations so they’re over-hiring to try to give themselves a buffer.”

Those strategies can work for companies with deep pockets, but Davidson said it’s putting pressure on small- to medium-sized businesses.

Meanwhile, Canada’s broader labour issue is being felt most acutely on the West Coast, according to an August report from the Royal Bank of Canada (TSX:RY).

RBC economist Carrie Freestone described labour market conditions in B.C. and Quebec as the “tightest” in Canada as West Coast employers navigate a 6% job vacancy rate as of June 2021.

Quebec, meanwhile, is facing a 5.8% job vacancy rate. (Manitoba has the lowest job vacancy rate in the country at 3.7%.)

The effect of departures is most pronounced in food services and accommodation, which has a 6.7% job vacancy rate in B.C.

Freestone noted in her report that at the outset of the pandemic, about 80% of workers within the hospitality sector had lost their jobs.

“More recently, they’ve been leaving voluntarily,” she said, pointing out average wages in the industry are 57% lower than other service-sector jobs. “The gap helps explain why many workers are exiting the sector, perhaps permanently.” •