Paywalled Article Important to Discussion in Civil Society about Covid-19 and the Great Depression
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‘Showing some compassion doesn’t cost anything’: Thousands of workers are being laid off in impersonal Zoom calls, leaving them angry and alone
By Jacob Lorinc Business Reporter Sat., Feb. 20, 2021 timer 7 min. read
Jon Pole thought he might have been punked.
The voice on the other end of the line sounded like an automated message, so measured and monotone in its delivery.
It wasn’t. The voice was real, and it was telling him to clean out his desk.
In a 90-second conference call in January, Pole was laid off from Bell Media. He’d gone from a late-night radio host at CJAD 800, a popular Montreal station with a broad following, to one of hundreds of employees at the company who’d lost their job during the pandemic. Not an unfamiliar story in Canadian media.
But something about this experience felt different — the abrupt virtual meeting, the lack of explanation, the message from human resources inviting employees to the call with an email titled “Business Update.” The process felt more insensitive than usual.
“My immediate reaction, honestly, was to laugh,” said Pole, who also operates radio stations in Renfrew, Ont. “Because it felt like I was in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch about corporations canning people. I thought, ‘That didn’t really just happen that way, did it?’”
Pole left the station after seven years on air.
The company did not specify the total number of job losses at Bell Media, though at least 210 positions were cut in the GTA alone.
In a major economic downturn, mass layoffs are to be expected. The dramatic measures taken by governments and businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in waves of job cuts that have left virtually no industry unscathed. But, unlike theso-called Before Times, when employees learned of layoffs at a town-hall meeting or in their boss’s office, employees now face these layoffs alone — at their desks at home and over communication channels like Zoom, Skype or Slack.
Typically, cameras are turned off, mics are muted, and in a matter of seconds a human resources representative reads the employee’s last rites.
This strategy, albeit quick and easy for the employer, is not only detrimental to the ex-employee’s mental health but fosters an atmosphere of fear and mistrust among those who remain, business management experts say.
“It’s extremely isolating, being laid off at home. We don’t get to meet face-to-face and discuss what happened, we don’t get the same kind of warnings to help us prepare for negative organizational events,” said Nita Chhinzer, an associate professor in human resources and business consulting at the University of Guelph.
“But this is common now. We will continue to see more layoffs at home, alone.”
Since the pandemic began, major corporations have axed hundreds, if not thousands, of workers on a continual basis. Air Canada has cut nearly 20,000 workers since March. Bombardier axed 1,600 workers in February alone. Most major cities have cut positions or furloughed their workers, while nearly every auto manufacturer has cut its workforce significantly.
Torstar is no exception. In April, the company eliminated 85 positions and cut its operating budget following a drop in advertising revenue.
In January, the country’s unemployment rate rose to 9.4 per cent — the highest it’s been since August — as the labour market lost 212,800 jobs, largely concentrated in Ontario and Quebec.
Layoffs are inevitable in these circumstances, says Chhinzer, and companies often need to make cuts quickly. In the age of remote work, conference calls can be the easiest way for companies to do this; not every employee can meet with their manager when companies are cutting so many positions at once.
But this method also creates a “one-way information flow,” says Chhinzer, allowing employers to avoid accountability or the opportunity to answer questions from employees seeking deeper explanation.
“It’s depersonalized and ignores our need for more of a back-and-forth,” she said.
Joanne Gallop, who worked at Canopy Growth as a creative director until she was laid off in a mass Zoom call, was one of hundreds to be cut from the cannabis company in April. She remembers the morning she received the invite to the conference call. Her team’s Slack channel was buzzing with speculation, she recalls. Coworkers wondered aloud: were they being fired? Why were some people invited, but others weren’t?
She joined the Zoom call with 92 other colleagues. The host had shut off mics and cameras when the employees joined; whoever was laying her off, she couldn’t see their face. The meeting ended 50 seconds after it began, Gallop said. She remembers watching the onscreen names of her colleagues falling away.
“I was pretty angry for a while afterwards. Even though you know you’re just an employee and just a number, it still feels very personal when it happens to you. For a while I had to unfollow their social media accounts,” she said.
Similar experiences were described by employees at Bell Media, most of whom asked to remain anonymous for this story.
At a TSN radio station in February, one employee described receiving an urgent email from management one morning, telling them to listen to a 9:15 a.m. conference call. They figured they could monitor it while their show was on the air.
But as they tried to go live, the producers realized they had lost control of the broadcast, and were unable to change the music or commercials.
“At that point, we realized what was happening,” the employee said.
When they turned on the radio, after receiving the official notice of their termination, they heard a Green Day song coming from the airwaves: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
In an email from the company, Bell Media spokesperson Marc Choma said the layoffs were all conducted by a manager and an HR representative, and included details of severance and benefits packages.
“Any departures at Bell would normally be in-person, of course, but COVID restrictions meant that meetings had to take place by video or in some cases by phone,” Choma said.
The rules surrounding layoffs vary depending on scope and jurisdiction. Employees affected by mass terminations, legally defined as 50 or more employees being laid off in a four-week period, are often entitled to special notice and severance pay, says Danny Kastner, an employment lawyer and partner at Kastner Lam LLP.
Companies that lay off between 50 and 200 employees at once can either provide up to eight weeks notice or offer a severance package that compensates for lack of notice. Reasonable notice is also determined on a case-by-case basis, including factors such as how long an employee has worked at the company, the position they held, and their age at the time of the layoff.
But there are exceptions to these standards, says Kastner.
“If the group being terminated constitutes less than 10 per cent of employees, for example, then many of these rules don’t apply. If the terminations are happening because a whole part of the business is shutting down its operations, then again, many of these rules don’t apply,” said Kastner.
Federally regulated companies, which include BCE Inc., and Air Canada, can also receive discretionary exemptions from the Ministry of Labour, says Kastner.
Ideally, employers can and should exceed the minimum of what’s required of them when giving reasonable notice, says Chhinzer.
“They should be able to provide some security for the period of unemployment that people will face. Advanced notice should be given, and employers should avoid having the layoffs linger,” she says.
She notes that employers who conduct mass layoffs in instalments, continuously over a period of weeks, will likely provoke fear and mistrust among employees. This approach will harm not only the employees but the employer as well; rarely are employees at their most productive or creative when they fear losing work, Chhinzer says.
“When we let layoffs linger, the rumour-mill takes over and it has a very demoralizing effect on workers. Even people who might end up keeping their jobs will feel threatened by the impending doom, which results in mistrust of management, increased absenteeism and a decrease in productivity among the workers who remain.”
Unsurprisingly, unemployment has been a driver of deteriorating mental health during the pandemic. A recent study conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) found that 61 per cent of Canadians reported feelings of anxiety and depression after losing their jobs during the pandemic. Following the first wave of layoffs when the lockdowns started in March, a survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that 30 per cent of recently unemployed respondents feared they would be late paying rent or their mortgage.
In the aftermath of the layoffs at Bell Media, the company was criticized widely online for abruptly cutting positions shortly after Bell Let’s Talk Day, the company’s awareness campaign to combat stigma surrounding mental illness.
Since leaving CJAD 800, Pole says he’s turned his focus to operating a few other radio shows. He also started a podcast.
“I consider myself lucky, because the (Bell Media) job was something I sort of just did for fun,” he said. “I wasn’t sitting there, afterwards, worrying about my mortgage.”
But he said that several of his colleagues have since expressed concern about finding work or returning to broadcasting in the future.
“I get why Bell did it. Business models change, the pandemic has taken its toll. I get it,” Pole said.
“But being nice to people, showing some compassion — that doesn’t cost anything. It just adds some human decency.”