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[Wanted] Workers, a Working Supply Chain, And Explanations

Dealing with some mundane tasks of life is more difficult than usual these days. It’s expected, I suppose. We were warned, “new normal,” “post-pandemic world” and all. There’s no quick fix for worldwide turmoil.

Yet, I’m the armchair economist wondering what’s not working exactly, and why.

Take supermarkets, for instance. We have three options within walking distance—Walmart, Loblaws and Food Basics. In all three, shelves are regularly empty and stay empty for days, weeks even.

This is not pre-pandemic shopping when you couldn’t find cleaning products and toilet paper because of panic buying.

This is not first-wave shopping with shelves cleared out of anything remotely entertaining, like craft and baking supplies.

This is not second-wave shopping either, where you could still find discounted Halloween candies weeks after (cancelled) festivities because capacity limits and long lineups were deterring shoppers.

And this is not third-wave shopping with blocked off aisles because you could totally catch COVID buying “non essential” items, like books or toys.

No, this is fourth-wave or post-pandemic (depending on your news source) shopping, where common items are just not there waiting for you as usual. I’m not talking about semiconductors or fancy French delicacies here, but sliced bread, produce, dairy products, meat, etc. Oh, rest assured, we have plenty of Halloween candy boxes and flavoured chips (a Canadian addiction). On-shelf availability seems to be affecting perishable food or anything with actual nutritional value. We have food, but entire categories of basic items are playing hide and seek for weeks. It’s… annoying.

Most of these food products don’t travel too far—they are baked, picked or prepared in Ontario, in Quebec, in Canada or in the US. Local and North American supply chains are a bit broken, I guess.

Yesterday, I chatted with a stocker who wasn’t busy stocking shelves but rearranging the few bread loaves left. “We’re not getting anything from distribution centres this week again,” he sighed. “Not enough workers.”

Ah, yeah. The labour shortage issue.

Half of the political spectrum blames it on shitty work conditions and low wages while the other half blames it on pandemic money and “people who just don’t want to work.”

Both “explanations” don’t fully make sense to me. I know plenty of jobs don’t pay a living wage and inflation is giving most of us a pay cut. Work conditions in North America are pretty shitty in general—unpredictable schedules, easy termination of employment, etc. Still, most people need money to live. Some workers may have moved to other industries or better jobs, but it seems unlikely all warehouse employees landed a more desirable job in IT, healthcare or whatever during pandemic—this is usually not the way society works, unfortunately.

I’m not buying the “pandemic money made people lazy” excuse either. Emergency benefits weren’t generous enough to disincentivize work. I applied for CERB benefits for the first three months of the pandemic—$2,000 monthly, taxable. It may sound like a lot of “free” money to you depending on where you live, but it’s not much in Canada, especially in big cities. Much like unemployment benefits, it can be a temporary “good deal” for some people in some circumstances but nobody gets rich on support cash.

Technically, I get it. According to what I’m reading, workers are massively leaving shitty industries and low-paid jobs. I don’t blame them, obviously.

But from a sociological perspective, I’m wondering what these workers are doing these days… if not working.

My gym‘s class schedule isn’t back to normal either, there are fewer options. This “new normal” is easier to explain—despite vaccine passports and very high vaccination coverage (87% of eligible population in Ontario as of late October), capacity is still limited. “And we can’t find instructors!” one of the managers admitted. Ah, labour shortage again! It’s true that instructors at my gym are typically kettlebell, Zumba or HIIT experts who teach a couple of weekly classes on top of their regular job—many are school teachers or government employees, actually. This side gig probably isn’t a priority. The federal government is the country’s largest employer and news report a return to the office isn’t on the radar right now—all employees except critical workers have been working from home since March 2020.

We’re also experiencing backlogs of services. We’ve been waiting for Mark’s new health card for a couple of months now—Feng called today, apparently it takes ten weeks for a renewal. Feng also had to renew his health card and driver’s licence and the process alone took about two weeks because of long lineups at ServiceOntario centres—for some reason, he couldn’t do it online. There’s also a passport renewal backlog, with people complaining online that they’ve been waiting for their travel document for months.

Most of these annoyances are beyond our control, we just have to deal with them.

And I’m not even talking about inflation with the highest food prices I’ve ever seen in twenty years in Canada.

How about you, how is your new normal going?

Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021
Walmart. Baseline and Merivale, Ottawa, October 2021

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