Work is creeping into downtime

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Thanksgiving Monday is certainly not the day when you’d expect to see more signs of the changing balance between work and life in our society. After all, it’s one of just seven or so full statutory holidays in the province, the kind of day that, 15 or 20 years ago, would have been like a full stop: no traffic, quiet streets, no stores open — or, at least, the only ones that were open were the mom-and-pops.

But take last Monday and a turn around the east end of St. John’s, and you see in a hurry that, just

like pension plans and strong unionized jobs, the observance of stat holidays is on the decline. It’s not clear whether it’s because more and more of us are essentially independent contractors, or whether employees feel they don’t have options. But boy, for a stat holiday, it was busy.

In Pleasantville, there was a painter on a man-lift, carefully outlining the windows of the Farm Products offices with new light blue paint, a radio on the lift blaring a little company.

Further up the hill towards Robin Hood Bay, a small legion of dump trucks was trundling the side roads, doing the equivalent of making hay while the sun shines. An excavator with a jackhammer head was tearing up rock and road near Roosevelt Avenue, and a full crew nearby was putting on a roof.

Further down, behind the perpetual construction project for a new Armed Forces station by Quidi Vidi Lake, an entire paving crew was putting down an asphalt parking lot — and waiting in the wings, another fleet of dump trucks, this group all burgundy and topped with tarpaulins, sat waiting with full loads of asphalt.

That presumably means somewhere nearby, an asphalt plant was running, too.

Coffee shops were open, even if the larger workday crowds of coffee drinkers weren’t there to buy. Maybe next year, or five years from now, those workday crowds will be there. Because, outside of strongly unionized, primarily public-sector jobs, the ground is certainly shifting.

 

Always on call

Anyone with a cellphone and universal access to email knows that work is stretching tentacles out into weekends, holidays and even vacations. The flip side of being able to constantly get in touch with the office is that the office can constantly get in touch with you.

The line between work and home life is certainly blurring, and chances are, no one’s paying workers for the extra time solving after-hours problems — more and more, it’s viewed as just part of the job. Plenty of workplaces are making do with fewer and fewer staff, meaning summer vacations are a respite for those who are off, and extra work for everyone else.

For those in less traditionally structured parts of the economy —consultants working from their home offices, lawyers overloaded with work — it’s become just another workday, except maybe with turkey leftovers.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t those who have worked on holidays and weekends for years — fish don’t wait for Tuesday, and neither do fires, car accidents or any of a host of jobs that go on despite the day. Plenty of people work Thanksgiving in any year, but what was a quiet day is less quiet.

It’s also true that everything goes in waves. Right now, maybe it’s all right to watch a stat holiday or two soften into a regular workday. Maybe it’s a time when it’s hard to argue that companies shouldn’t be allowed to squirm away from pension obligations because the shareholders that employers never see deserve more respect than the employees who show up every workday, and more.

But eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way again. The mistake that employers may be making in this whole equation is that they have developed a view that employees are little more than cost centres, an expense to be trimmed rather than a part of the company that also requires investment. Good employers — and there are still good employers — realize that employees are as much a critical part of their operations as cost-saving technology.

This is not a solidarity-forever trade unionist’s lament. I’ve spent a little time in unions, but most of my jobs have been basically contracts between myself and an employer. And there’s been a lot of change in those contracts, a lot of shrinking pay; for freelance writers, magazine work has actually gone backwards, with few magazines paying even what they paid in the ’90s.

People are working longer hours, with more expected from their “free” time, and often for comparatively less in compensation — especially in areas like pensions and benefits, where companies have successfully shifted all of the risk to their employees. It makes employees more pragmatic, and less attached to their jobs.

Something to think about on a Thanksgiving Monday — a statutory holiday when every adult in my household, by the way, spent at least part of their day back at some form of work.

 

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Farm Products

Geographic location: Pleasantville, Robin Hood Bay, Roosevelt Avenue Quidi Vidi Lake

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Recent comments

  • JT
    October 16, 2012 - 15:20

    We can thank the Well's Liberal goverment for doing away with at least two stat holidays. The only people I know of who get all the stat holidays are public service workers.

  • Bob Hannaford
    October 13, 2012 - 20:15

    Russell, I stand to be corrected but I don't think Thanksgiving Day is a stat holiday in NL, at least according to the Labour Standards Act.