Money

This Is How We Get Laid Off Now. At Home, Alone

It's always been terrible to lose your job. With many of us being sent home because of COVID-19, and then laid off over Zoom or email, it feels even worse.
March 24, 2020, 2:53pm
Job Loss, Coronavirus, COVID-19

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

On March 17, I lost my job.

It came as no surprise to me: I worked for G Adventures, a small group travel company, and travel and tourism are among the industries hardest-hit by the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. And my position—overseeing the company’s in-house blog—was, I will readily admit, very easy to justify as inessential.

It wasn’t unsurprising to everyone, though—least of all how it went down. The layoffs came just a day after G Adventures instituted its mandatory work-from-home policy, following suit with most major offices around the world in telling its employees to stay home in order to enforce social distancing protocols. And how do you lay off people—and I say “people” because, by and large, this is happening en masse—when you can’t sit in a room with them? Remotely, of course.

These were layoffs with all the life-shaking devastation of losing your job, but none of the humanity. And for now—and for the foreseeable future—that’s the status quo.

The use of the remote layoff isn’t exclusive (or novel) to the COVID-19 epidemic and its ensuing economic turmoil—but its prevalence certainly might be. Mass layoffs in the time of coronavirus have largely come after companies told its employees to simply stay home, meaning we’re all finding out in different, varyingly detached ways—over Zoom calls, via email, on Skype or, heaven forbid, over Slack—that we’ve lost our jobs. It seems cold, but right now, what’s the other option?

“Heeding advice now in regard to safety trumps requirements for providing face-to-face disclosure,” said Nita Chhinzer, an associate professor in human resources and business consulting at the University of Guelph. “There’s a general understanding now that some of these conversations, even things like performance reviews, are no longer taking place face to face. I think the scale at which layoffs are happening necessitates some sort of impersonal experience for layoffs.”

Peter Morin worked as a Retail Training Specialist for Lift & co., a cannabis marketing agency based in downtown Toronto. He and his coworkers had already been working remotely for a week when he—and many others—learned that he’d gotten the axe, via email. “I started getting a bunch of text messages,” Morin said, noting that he might not have seen the email letting him know that he’d lost his job had his former colleagues not started blowing up his phone with news of their own layoff notices. “There was no real communication about what was happening.”

And for many, there’s been little followup—Morin, for instance, is still hoping to be paid for some expenses he’d filed months ago. But for businesses, time to tie up loose ends has been occupied by existing staff scrambling to keep ships afloat, leaving those who’ve been laid off moored at our kitchen tables, suddenly and forcibly isolated from both the world at large, and our individual sources of income.

At G, I received news that I’d been laid off in a slightly more personal fashion than Morin did at Lift: in a video call. But so did a bunch of others, leading to a temporary atmosphere of panic—a digital-only atmosphere, existing only on Slack, articulated with the soundless capital letters and frantic gifs we all sent from our respective kitchen tables and living rooms—over who else might be getting cut, and at what time. It was anxiety-inducing, but per current public safety protocols, this is essentially the new normal.

Mass layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have become, well, a pandemic unto themselves. In Canada, LNG Canada, which operates the country’s largest private infrastructure project, in Kitimat, B.C., has laid off 750 people, while Air Canada axed roughly 5,000 jobs; Air Transat followed suit not long after with 3,600. Nearly every auto worker in Ontario is out of a job. On a smaller—but no less significant—scale, cultural institutions are feeling a hit: the Stratford Festival laid off 495 staff members earlier this week, after the festival itself was forced to postpone its opening dates. Most everyone who works in a restaurant, bar, fast-food establishment, or coffee shop here in Ontario is out of a job. No industry (excepting healthcare and grocery retail) is currently immune to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

There’s a precedent for impersonal layoffs, anyway: according to Chhinzer, mass layoffs—on the scale that we are currently seeing from companies such as Air Canada—simply cannot feasibly be done on a one-to-one basis. And often, companies will choose to deliver news of layoffs via digital media when there is a larger, overarching directive coming from the company itself dictating a staff reshuffle, rather than simply being a matter of one person losing their job due to bad performance. “In cases like now, when people might be asking questions, we don't want to put an untrained manager or HR in a situation where they need to defend the layoff using two-way communication,” she explained, “or accidentally make promises that we don't mean that we can later be held accountable for.”

Still, it stings.

At G, some staff have joined a mass WhatsApp chat to commiserate and support one another through next steps. It’s difficult—even during an unprecedented medical crisis—to not take this thing a little bit personally. For that, Chhinzer has some research-based advice: “The Number One question is ‘why me?’ And that question remains one that most of us don't ever get answered,” she said. “So that's the reality of being a layoff victim. That can be psychologically destabilizing. But post-2008, after the major recession, layoffs are the new norm. We experience them due to no fault of our own.”

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