The Fernie Hotel and Pub was one of the many establishments that employed seasonal workers. Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press

COVID-19 greatly impacts future of seasonal workers

Faced with job loss and lack of financial support, many overseas workers were forced to return home

A large percentage of Fernie’s seasonal workers have had to make drastic changes to their future plans, with many returning to their home countries as a result of the COVID-19 virus.

For many visitors to Fernie, the relocation was obligatory in the wake of job loss and lack of eligibility for Employment Insurance (EI). Many of Fernie’s seasonal workers, such as those working for Fernie Alpine Resort (FAR) or the restaurants, bars, and retail shops in town, have been laid off due to business closures.

“The business closures have forced us to lay off all of our staff,” said Eric Epperson, manager of the Rusty Edge. “On one hand it has been very hard to lose our amazing team, but on the other hand we are fortunate that our staff are predominantly seasonal workers who were expecting a layoff this spring. COVID-19 just forced it to happen a month earlier.”

According to Epperson, most of his Canadian staff managed to apply for EI and are currently in good spirits. However, the bulk of his overseas staff have made the difficult decision to return home. This is because while EI is available for some, certain restrictions prevent others from receiving monetary relief. According to the Government of Canada website, in order to qualify for the Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits that provide financial assistance to those sick or in quarantine, one must have accumulated 600 insured hours within the last year, or since the start of their last claim. This makes any seasonal workers who have not been in the country for long ineligible for the funding.

Even still, some overseas workers such as Scotland native Mark Addison, have yet to receive a final word from their workplace.

“It’s been horrible being in limbo essentially. There’s been no clarity on whether I am or am not laid off. It’s inconclusive because I don’t know whether I can apply for EI, and I don’t know if I have hours coming in,” said Addison, who works as a building maintenance supervisor for FAR. “My job seemed to be opening up to work through the summer, but now everything is up in the air. I don’t know if that job will exist anymore because of this.”

Despite the uncertainty and financial hardship, Addison has made the decision to remain in Fernie for the time being. Hoping that matters resolve themselves in the near future, decisions like Addison’s are not made lightly or without repercussions.

“I’m still here because I see no point in panicking and running across the world back home. I see Fernie as being a good place to be for quarantine times,” said Addison. “But I’m due rent in a day or so, and I have not had full wages for the last three weeks. I was expecting to have a job for another month plus, and it has ended super early. If I don’t get EI, I probably won’t be able to stay in the country.”

While some employees with time left on their visas may return when businesses are able to open their doors once again, others close to the termination of their working holidays unfortunately cannot.

“I don’t see myself coming back to Fernie, or Canada for that matter in the near future,” said New Zealander Taylor Boult, a former lift attendant for Fernie Alpine Resort. “This is just because my work visa was ending at the end of summer anyway, so even if I did come back, my stay in Canada would not be for long. I 100 per cent see myself coming back to Fernie at some point in my life again though, even if it’s just for a short ski trip then back home.”

With such sudden changes come a multitude of feelings. For many, not only did they lose their jobs, but their future plans changed, their anticipated events were cancelled, and their relationships were forever altered in a matter of days.

“Besides the loss of employment and income I think a lot of our staff are devastated by the lack of closure. A lot of our team are only here for one winter, maybe two, and they worked hard through Christmas to Family Week to have the springtime as the payoff for that hard work. This was their time to ski, ride, socialize, and enjoy everything a ski season in Fernie is about, including, of course, Hot Dog Day. But all these things have been cancelled. Of course relatively speaking this is a loss of minor scale, but it’s still okay and healthy to feel sorrow for these things,” said Epperson.

According to Boult, who has returned home due to lack of employment, the decision to fly back to New Zealand so suddenly and unexpectedly was intertwined with feelings of uncertainty, sorrow, and shock. His feelings are mirrored by countless others who have likewise left Fernie in the recent weeks.

“The hardest part was leaving all my friends behind, especially on such short notice. Because for me personally the gap between making the decision to leave and actually leaving was only a couple of days, there were still people that I never got to say a proper goodbye to, besides maybe a phone call or a text,” said Boult.

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