Workers at two Newfoundland companies say their employers have gone above and beyond to ensure staff are safe, comfortable and treated fairly during the pandemic.
Workers in this province know a thing or two when it comes to adapting to change in the face of adversity.
Since COVID-19 hit the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2020, workers from every sector have faced struggles unique to their industries, but they share at least one thing in common: the need to make ends meet and to be treated fairly by their employers.
While some employers have taken measures to accommodate workers throughout the pandemic, one union leader says others have been lacking in their approach.
Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said her organization has examined some of the negative impacts of COVID-19 upon low-wage earners.
Shortall says about 50,000 workers in the province work for less than $15 an hour.
The federation says COVID-19 exposed problems such as the failure of some employers to fulfill their obligations to provide fair wages to workers.
“There are employers who step up and there are employers who don’t, and there’s no real consistency,” said Shortall.
The Federation president maintains that government should legislate higher wages, more consistent scheduling, and paid sick days into the Labour Standards Act.
Blue Buoy Foods Inc. is one employer that has stepped up, according to its workers’ union.
Carolyn Wrice, president of Unifor Local 597, noted that the St. John’s-based company not only kept its doors open but has continued to pay workers who needed time off due to COVID-19.
The business, run by Ken Bursey, reached a collective agreement with Unifor to provide pay raises, lump sum payments and improved worker protection during the lockdown.
“Ken has a small group of workers – many who are aging people – but he appreciates them,” said Wrice.
“I’ve worked for big corporate companies before and they never hesitate to remind you that you are replaceable.” – Mike Hammond
Mike Hammond – like so many other young people – has hustled for companies big and small, but working at Escape Quest in downtown St. John’s has been an experience like no other.
“I’ve worked for big corporate companies before, and they never hesitate to remind you that you are replaceable,” said Hammond. “But here, they really go above and beyond to make sure that we know we’re cared about.”
Hammond recalled the approach that his managers took following the first lockdown. Staff were paid for two weeks of wages and were consulted before a reopening plan was carved out.
The company paid its staff during self-isolation because they felt it was the right thing to do.
“Our physical well-being came first,” said Hammond. “They told us to stay home and take the pay.”
After a lucrative summer, Escape Quest raised wages to $15 an hour, which was more than two dollars above the minimum wage at the time.
“They support us financially, support our mental health and go beyond what they are expected to do as employers,” he observed.
Hammond works part-time for the company but is also a local comedian.
“So many of our employees are artists and they (the owners) do everything they can not only to support their art, but to incorporate the artist’s work in their own [escape] rooms,” he added.
Family at work
Nicole Kieley, Kevin Noseworthy, Mark Denine and Mark Webber are the collective behind the gamer-inspired company known as Escape Quest.
The owners refer to their employees as a “little family unit”. Noseworthy champions this approach in contrast to the negative work experiences the owners experienced when they were employees themselves.
“Escape Quest is run by four millennials who have all been in the service industry and have had supervisors who have not treated us as well as we would have liked,” Noseworthy said.
“It’s important to us that our staff feel appreciated and valued, and that their work is acknowledged,” Noseworthy said. “Staff are brilliant. They come up with creative and brilliant solutions for escape rooms that we would have not considered.”
Adam Strong has worked at Escape Quest for the past five years and came into the business as a customer. The owners noticed his enthusiasm and decided to hire him.
“They were so friendly,” Strong said. “I consider them less as bosses and more as peers and friends.”
When asked about what advice that he might give to other businesses, Noseworthy stressed the importance of listening to staff.
“Be willing to listen and take their experiences into account. They are the ones on the front lines and know the challenges of work better than we do now.”