(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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

The board is planning a 2021 festival no matter the conditions, they are going to make it work! (BCMF directors Buddy Thatcher (from left), Kristen Boulier, Rose Clark, Jeff Gray, Corissa McNeilly and Jayme Kennedy (front), and her hair. (photo submitted)
Bella Coola Music Festival planning on 2021 fest

The BCMF is planning for a 2021 festival on July 17 and 18, however it may look.

The Lost Lake trail is a popular hike for locals and visitors for it's accessibility (Khya Saban photo)
LETTER: Lost Lake trailhead trees shouldn’t be cut down

The area is slated to be cut by the Bella Coola Community Forest

Easter is on Sunday, April 4, 2021. How much do you know about Easter history and traditions? (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: How much do you know about Easter?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz about Easter and its traditions

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Most Read