(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

‘Forgotten front-line workers:’ Essential workers reveal ups and downs of pandemic

A bus driver, a teacher, a construction worker and a grocery store cashier worked throughout the pandemic

It’s been a year since office towers were hollowed out, malls became ghost towns and the din of restaurants was hushed.

Yet as many Canadians were laid off or switched to working from home, others were declared essential and continued to go into work every day regardless of surging COVID-19 cases.

In an effort to understand the life of essential workers over the past year, The Canadian Press interviewed four people who have largely continued work as usual through the pandemic: A bus driver, a teacher, a construction worker and a grocery store cashier.

These are their stories.

Shane Curveon, bus driver, Kelowna, B.C.

When Shane Curveon drives the No. 23 bus in Kelowna, B.C., he greets many passengers by name.

For a year now, as the novel coronavirus spread across Canada and health officials issued stay-at-home orders, Curveon has continued to drive various routes in the picturesque Okanagan Valley city.

Like many workers declared essential, he approaches his job with a sense of duty and public service.

But after a year of working in a pandemic, Curveon has also had days of fearfulness, confusion and exhaustion.

“There were days when it was absolutely terrifying going into work,” he said, noting that for much of the first wave masks weren’t mandatory and there was no physical barrier protecting drivers.

“Masks are mandatory now but there’s no enforcement and we don’t have the authority to enforce the rule.”

Despite working with the public every day since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Curveon said bus drivers haven’t received a pay bonus and don’t appear to have priority access to vaccines.

“We’re the forgotten front-line workers.”

Crystal Isert, teacher, Lower Sackville, N.S.

Crystal Isert describes a “panic moment” last March break when she realized she’d be teaching online.

“I use a lot of technology in the classroom but that’s not the same as teaching all your lessons online,” said Isert, who teaches Grade 6 French immersion at Leslie Thomas Junior High School in the Halifax area.

The following months were a blur of long days trying to develop online resources on the fly, she said, adding that it was “trial by fire.”

Schools in Nova Scotia largely returned to in-person classes in the fall.

“It was terrifying at first because we didn’t know what the second wave would look like,” she said, noting that she worried about things like the school’s air ventilation system and the lack of physical distancing in classrooms.

After the first day of class in September, she had a headache and a raw voice after six hours of teaching with a mask on, Isert said.

But a fellow teacher gave her a face mask bracket that helped her breathe and speak more easily, and soon the constant sanitizing of student desks and hands and co-ordinating breaks became a “well-oiled machine.”

“In the beginning, it was really daunting,” she said. “But now it really is routine. The students are really respectful and I feel safe at my school.”

Francois Dore, construction worker, Ottawa, Ont.

The first two weeks of the pandemic were the hardest for Francois Dore.

The iron worker, who builds structural steel buildings in Ottawa, was sent home until the project he was working on was declared essential.

“It was good to go back to work,” Dore said. “I think it helps to keep the same routine as much as possible.”

Still, while he goes to a job site every day, a lot has changed.

The construction worker wears a mask all day and does a lot more “housekeeping,” he said.

“We try not to share tools and once we’re done with them, we sanitize them,” Dore said. “At the end of a shift, we spray down the tool boxes.”

Although there were times he felt nervous going into work, especially when there was uncertainty about how COVID-19 spread, overall Dore said he’s felt safe.

“I’m glad I could keep busy,” Dore said. “I would have never wanted to stay home.”

Jennifer Hoar, grocery clerk, Ucluelet, B.C.

Every day, Jennifer Hoar stocks vegetables at the Ucluelet Co-op grocert store on the west coast of Vancouver Island, replacing the “blue bearded tomatoes” with fresh red ones.

But her job as assistant manager in the produce department has gotten harder over the past year as the store grappled with supply issues.

It started with a shortage of 10-pound bags of potatoes, then bags of carrots were in short supply and more recently mushrooms were out of stock.

“It’s been a little crazy,” she said. “At first we just couldn’t keep anything on the shelves because people were stocking up. Then things didn’t turn up.”

The store would order six pallets of toilet paper, and three cases would arrive, Hoar said.

With some co-workers in self-isolation or caring for family, Hoar logged long days.

But she said neighbours in the small community of about 1,700 year-round would drop off lunch for the store’s employees, from pizza to Sri Lankan curry, and the $2-an-hour pay bonus helped raise morale.

“I was happy to be at work because I didn’t have to go through that isolation,” Hoar said. “Coming to work is sometimes hard but staying home can be hard too.”

Still, there are days when the exhaustion of working in a pandemic has crept up on her, especially when customers don’t follow public health protocols in store.

“It’s quite disconcerting now when people walk up and tap me on the shoulder to get my attention,” she said. “We are a resort town and this has happened numerous times with visiting people.”

ALSO READ: B.C.’s restaurant industry wants in on the rush COVID-19 shot list

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Recreation therapy staff Karen Baker and Jenessa Dunkle dressed up for the tea on the Titanic, held on the 109th anniversary of the sinking of the vessel.
photo submitted
109 years after the sinking, the Titanic disaster is still remembered in Castor

Residents of Castor’s long term care facility were treated to an immersive celebration of the vessel

Alberta’a chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday that there are more than 328,000 vaccine appointments booked over the next seven days. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta surpasses 2 million doses administered of COVID-19 vaccine

Red Deer down to 835 active cases of COVID-19

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
‘We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man’:Kenney faces internal call to quit

Senior backbench member Todd Loewen, in a letter posted on Facebook, called on Kenney to resign

Alberta continues to wrestle with high COVID-19 case numbers. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer up to 858 active cases of COVID-19

Province reports additional 1,799 cases of the virus

Marc Kielburger, screen left, and Craig Kielburger, screen right, appear as witnesses via video conference during a House of Commons finance committee in the Wellington Building in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. The committee is looking into Government Spending, WE Charity and the Canada Student Service Grant. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau didn’t violate conflict rules over WE Charity, watchdog says

Federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion found that former finance minister Bill Morneau did violate the rules

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
Alberta RCMP investigating possible threat to police after Mirror rally

Online images show RCMP members, vehicles in crosshairs of a rifle

An Israeli attack helicopter launches flares as he flies over the Israeli Gaza border, southern Israel, Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Singh calls for halt on Canadian arms sales to Israel as violence escalates in region

Government data shows Canada sent $13.7 million in military goods and technology to Israel in 2019

New homes are built in a housing construction development in the west-end of Ottawa on Thursday, May 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Budget’s foreign-homebuyers tax could bring in $509 million over 4 years, PBO says

Liberals are proposing a one per cent tax on vacant homes owned by foreign non-residents

A Canadian flag patch is shown on a soldier’s shoulder in Trenton, Ont., on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014. The Canadian Forces says it has charged one of its members in the death of an army reservist from British Columbia during a training exercise at a military base in Alberta last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg
Canadian Forces member charged in death of army reservist during training exercise

Cpl. Lars Callsen has been charged with one count of negligence

A youth plays basketball in an otherwise quiet court in Toronto on Saturday April 17, 2021. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is urging the federal and provincial governments to fight COVID-19 pandemic by focusing on proven public health policy interventions including paid sick leave, and education rather than punitive enforcement measures. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Provinces issued more COVID-19 tickets during 2nd wave: CCLA report

‘A pandemic is a public health, not a public order, crisis,’ reads the report

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta justice minister sorry for saying feds, others rooting for COVID disaster

Earlier Tuesday, prior to Madu’s apology, Trudeau rejected the accusations

In this Monday, March 15, 2021 file photo a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is pictured in a pharmacy in Boulogne Billancourt, outside Paris. Questions remained Wednesday about the future of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in Canada, as Manitoba limited use of the shot and Ontario announced it planned to save an incoming shipment to use as second doses. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Christophe Ena, File
Questions remain about the future of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot in Canada

More than two million Canadians have received AstraZeneca and 17 have been confirmed to have VITT

Most Read