These past months, COVID-19 has shaped our collective imagination. The need for physical distancing has forced us to question how we work. Last spring, as offices became deserted and factories closed, health care facilities and other businesses were moving full steam ahead, and truck and delivery drivers were working flat out.
While frontline workers have to be physically on the job, for many others, work has now moved home.
For millions of Canadians pressed into working at home, the past few months have been hard. These men and women have kept on working without missing a beat, all the while coping with the constant presence and needs of a partner, children, household chores, etc.
Their hours have gotten longer, their workspace smaller, and the line between their work and home life has become blurred.
The never-ending workday is not a new phenomenon: the right to disconnect from work has long been a central issue in discussions in a number of countries, including Canada. At the start of the pandemic, longer workdays might have been acceptable but, six months later, is there any justification for asking workers to be on the job for 10 if not 12 hours a day?
And what will happen if there is a second wave, or if another pandemic breaks out?
In the meantime, when working from home, people use more electricity, heat, and air conditioning. Some use their personal computers or have purchased videoconferencing tools and now monopolize the family’s bandwidth. In short, they use their home as an office, but are they in any way compensated?
What’s more, widespread musculoskeletal problems among workers have been acknowledged for years. Can we expect an increase in these injuries due to long hours in makeshift, hardly ergonomic home offices?
Although some studies indicate that people working from home tend to be more productive and more innovative, my main concern is whether they’re happier. Remember, human beings are social animals who need to interact with their peers. How do human interactions during a video conference compare to in person interactions?
There is also an added burden for women, in particular, who work from home. Women typically handle a greater share of household chores, while also bearing the mental load of managing the family’s needs. Where there is spousal violence, working outside the home also limits contact with the violent spouse and offers greater access to support systems, but working from home makes the victim even more vulnerable.
Given that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be the last of the 21st century’s major health crisis, we need to think about how working from home has morphed from being a crisis response to becoming the new normal. The time has come for workers, unions, researchers, governments and employers to sit down and take a long hard look at what has happened. Some elected representatives are already proposing amendments to various labour codes, but I believe we need to go farther.
What about a guaranteed minimum wage that would compensate workers laid off during a crisis? What about financial compensation for workers who transform part of their home into a home office? What about shorter work hours, so that workers can take care of their families and mental health by socializing? What about requiring employers to make arrangements to protect women workers from domestic violence?
Outdated mid 20th century work models aren’t cutting it any more. For once, let’s be proactive instead of waiting until workers are isolated and impoverished. Let’s think about what it means to work from home. Let’s talk about it. And let’s do something about it. Now. To protect the women and men who drive Canada’s economy.
President of Teamsters Canada
Vice President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters