A closed sign on the pavement, which is emblematic of the challenges gig workers are having finding employment during the pandemic. Photo Credit: Allison (CC BY-ND 2.0)
By: Rachel Watts
MONTREAL– Osheaga, Just for Laughs, the Jazz Festival and Formula 1 Grand Prix are just some of the dozens of Montreal festivals which cancelled or postponed their in-person events for the second year in a row due to the pandemic.
The organizers of summer events around the city are not alone in being forced to cancel, with the rest of Canada in the midst of its third, and most concerning wave of COVID-19, with the number of cases across Canada per day reaching the thousands.
For those located in red and orange alert-level zones, curfews, store closures, regional travel bans, and restaurant and bar closures have been among the protocol being enforced intermittently over the past year.
For people employed in the hospitality, tourism and entertainment industries, these closures have meant lost jobs. That absence of these employment opportunities are felt in many major cities, one being Montreal, which relies substantially on event-based economic activity.
Jonathan Dresner, owner of Montreal restaurants Notre-Bœuf-de-Grâce, Kupfert and Kim, Hello 123, Pigeon Café and Burger Fiancé, says this past year has marked a difficult time for restaurateurs. Owners like himself have had to lay off a number of servers, hostesses, bartenders and bussers. He says the layoffs were hard, particularly in a period filed with uncertainty, isolation, and job insecurity.
“It is depressing,” says Dresner. “We start to become like family. And a lot of them live by themselves, and they want hours because they want to socialize, but we don’t really have hours for them.”
Because of the nature of the Covid-19 closures, businesses around the city have sporadically been forced to close unexpectedly and in recent months, festivals and shows, such as Osheaga, have followed suite, cancelling their second year of events and resulting in a number of temporary and gig workers losing out on opportunities they could normally count on pre-pandemic.
A gig worker is someone who works as a short-term independent contractor. That work can include a host of professions such as freelance writers, security personnel and photographers says John-Paul Ferguson, a professor in organizational behaviour and expert in labor markets at McGill University.
During the pandemic, Ferguson says the experiences of gig workers, as well as temporary workers, have varied– a symptom of the diverse nature of working conditions and employment variables around Montreal.
Ferguson notes that both temporary and gig workers are already susceptible to precarious working conditions, but the pandemic has exacerbated those challenges.
“We don’t have to label people gig economy workers to say that the contraction and the suspension of social activities because of the pandemic is going to hurt an already precarious portion of the workforce,” says Ferguson. “There’s no question about that.”
In September 2020, the Government of Canada attempted to address these challenges by implementing the Employment Insurance program in addition to their pre-existing Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) program which guaranteed both program claimants around $500 per week. These programs were designed for workers who found themselves either self-employed, their weekly income reduced due to COVID-19 or those needing benefits such as sickness, maternity or caregiving.
Susan Moss, contract photographer for Evenko, a Montreal event management company, is one of many Canadians who is an active beneficiary of these programs. While she says the support has helped, gig and temporary workers still have it tough, with most struggling with routine expenses.
The government money helps but I live alone, so all my bills are alone, and I’m used to making a certain amount of money,” says Moss.
“Plus, there’s expenses like a computer, and you have to keep updated with technology… Even when I have a good year, I have to spend $20,000 on equipment, so it’s definitely hard to save money.”
Moss says her career grew exponentially in the past decade, something which the pandemic put a halt to in the past year.
(Photo @ Sonia Primerano)
Pre-pandemic, Moss says she could typically shoot nine shows per week. Now, inside of 13 months she says 99 per cent of her gigs were cancelled, with her shooting a total of four shows since March 2020.
This is something Moss says she never could have predicted.
“It’s been very tough. I know all these people who have been struggling,” says Moss.
In late April, Evenko announced the cancellation of Osheaga, something that experts expected considering Quebec’s recent surge in cases.
While Moss was not surprised by the postponement, she notes that working for Evenko is usually her main gig. In addition to the cancellation, Moss says she has also lost a number of other contracts, such as one with Tourism Montreal, after working for them for over 10 years.
While she started selling prints of her photos back in September, which Moss says has since become a good extra source of income, she notes that she has few employment options until the city re-opens.
Ferguson notes that while temporary work in customer service and restaurants will likely resume once the pandemic is over, people who rely upon traditional forms of gig work might start to re-evaluate the benefits of working in what has now become an insecure industry.
“I think the pandemic has really shown people the dangers of that kind of work,” says Ferguson.
“Many of these jobs we have created have very insecure employment status; we’re all learning why events beyond our control can make those quite terrible jobs.”