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[Special Feature – Part III] Working in Canada: the Bad

Ottawa, December 2012
Ottawa, December 2012

This four-part special feature casts a spotlight on the Canadian working world and its ups and downs. Comments and questions are always welcome!

You can read [Special Feature – Part I] Working in Canada: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly here and [Special Feature – Part II] Working in Canada: the Good here.

In “Working in Canada: the Good”, I highlighted a few perks of the North American workplace. But the Canadian way of life also has a number of downsides, which you should be aware of as an employee.

The “Canadian Experience” Catch 22

This is a classic problem for newcomers to Canada:  local employers would rather hire a candidate with previous work experience in Canada; but of course you need to start somewhere and find someone willing to give you a chance.

The “Canadian experience” catch 22 can be incredibly frustrating for newcomers eager to enter the job market. And you’d think in a country where over 250,000 immigrants land every year, employers would be used to deal with foreign degree, experience and credentials!

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to tackle the issue. You can go through a staffing agency (they are sometime less picky than employers), have your credentials assessed in Canada or volunteer to gain experience. Meanwhile, non-profit organizations like Hire Immigrants Ottawa work hard to increase the capacity of employers to attract and integrate skilled immigrants.

Vacation Time? Meh… Three-Day Weekends More Like

Canadians do get more vacation time than Americans, but overall, you do not get a lot of time off.

There are five nationwide statutory holidays in Canada, plus a few provincial and territorial holidays. These three- or four-day long weekends are a nice break from a busy work schedule and most Canadians look forward to them and celebrate them one way or another.

Each province has different rules and regulations with regard to the amount of vacation pay and time each person can take. Generally speaking, employers must grant at least two weeks of paid vacation time (4% of wages) per twelve-month working period. However, keep in mind that employers have the final say and can assign vacation time for employees. You may not be able to take your two weeks in a row and you may not be able to take time off during a busy period (i.e. around the end of the fiscal year if you work for the government, or during the holiday times for customer service industry employees).

From my own experience, I notice Canadians don’t take a lot of holiday time and when they do, they almost feel bad about it. Taking a week off is often noticed and commented by co-workers, and getting permission to take two weeks off is a real privilege. Taking a day off here and there to have a three-day weekend is much more common and socially acceptable. Unpaid time off is equally hard to take.

The lack of holiday time can be tough for immigrants who may want to visit home once in a while. You can’t really fly across the world for just five or six days!

Sick? Tough Luck but Come to Work Anyway

Sick days—or the lack thereof—are another downside of the Canadian working culture. Paid sick leave is an optional benefit granted by some employers but not all. For instance, when I was working as a French teacher, I had four paid sick days to use in any twelve-month period. When I was working for a Crown corporation, we had no sick days but “personal days”—basically, if you were sick, you had to take vacation time.

As a result, a lot of people would rather show up at work sick than take a precious paid sick day or worse, lose a day of pay. It doesn’t do much for productivity in the long run and you can easily catch the flu from your sick cubicle neighbour. That may be why everyone carries a bottle of hand sanitizer around these days!

A Flexible Work Schedule

If you are in an office environment, chances are you will work “9-to-5”. But if you work in the customer service industry, expect to work a very flexible schedule. Stores have long opening hours in Canada and they typically open seven days a week. Call centres have to deal with customers across time zones—and there are six primary time zones in Canada, Newfoundland, Atlantic, Eastern, Central, Mountain and the Pacific time zone.

Employers also like to schedule employees at the last minute. For instance, you may get your weekly work schedule on the Friday for the following week, making it hard to plan ahead for family life and time off.

Being Plugged All the Time

These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to unplug from the office. In my last two positions, I was given a brand new shiny BlackBerry. “Yay, free phone and no strings attached!” you may think. Problem was, I was pretty much always on call and I found it hard to unplug after the end of my work day. I was receiving emails, requests and questions 24/7 and people actually expected me to answer them “because it just takes a minute to check your emails on your phone”. I never seemed to be able to put the BlackBerry down.

Employees in the customer service industry may find themselves “on call” as well. If their workplace is unexpectantly busy, the manager may give you a call to come work on a day off.

So these are a few downsides of typical Canadian workplaces. But the ugly part is coming up! Part VI – Working in Canada: the Ugly will be published on Monday, February 4.

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