Buying the Stale Bread in Sault Ste. Marie: One Family’s Precarious Employment Journey

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Marie had been riding a nice little high for a few days but when she pulled into the grocery store parking lot, she was overcome with anxiety as the grinding of her power steering alerted other shoppers that she had arrived.

“All I could think, was turn it off fast,” says Marie. “Power steering is a luxury not a necessity.”

She carried that feeling of anxiousness with her into the store, feeling very aware of her surroundings and people around her. She related to an older man ahead of her in the check-out who was holding up the line, questioning why he wasn’t given the sale price for a loaf of bread, and Marie pondered how other people in the line-up were taking in the situation.

“It was the difference of 75 cents and that concerned him. That would concern me too. I wondered what the people in line, who don’t get it, were thinking. Maybe they would be annoyed that he was holding up the line to talk to the cashier about 75 cents. But I wasn’t. I felt totally fine about that. It just made me wonder how people perceive those things. And how it’s written on your face sometimes, because you just can’t hide it, that you’re not doing that well.”

*****

Marie is 30 years old and married to Jim who is 37 years old. The couple has a 13 year old son.

Marie is steeped in education and experience. In 2010, she acquired her B.A. in psychology and was accepted into a program that would allow her to acquire a PhD in neuroscience but her son was young and not wanting to uproot her family, the decision to pursue higher education was shelfed for a few years. Marie has since obtained a diploma in office administration-executive and in a few weeks she’ll have a certificate in interdisciplinary aboriginal learning and a certificate in public policy and administration. All this time, Marie has been working part-time in the research field though her earnings are sparse often due to the fact that funding is not always available for her position.

Marie also found time to create a program that enables people with ALS who have lost the ability to speak, to communicate. The program is a collection of brain-computer interface equipment and software that uses electricity from brainwaves to detect what a person is looking at on a computer screen –typically a matrix of letters.

She has interviewed for many well-paying jobs but the competition is stacked in Northern Ontario where professional job opportunities seem to be lacking.

Jim by contrast, who experiences a severe form of dyslexia, did not complete high school and left after his Grade 11 year. Jim has worked many low-paying and unstable jobs in the Sault, sometimes cycling through 3 jobs in a period of 12 months. He worked for a window washing outfit, commercial/residential restoration company, a golf course, a roofing company, a DJ business and many “weird jobs” as Marie put it, before landing a spot with a personnel company that provided employees to Essar and Tenaris Tubes. The work was part-time but with Jim earning $1200 to $2000 per month the couple felt brave and began to look for a new home. Marie and Jim were paying $700 a month to rent a small apartment in the City. They began a search for a new home and opting for a lifestyle change that country living offers, the family moved from Sault Ste. Marie to Goulais Bay in 2014.

“We both wanted to be tired at the end of the day for a reason that was different from the stress we felt in the City. We wanted to be tired from digging holes,” softly laughs Marie. “Or chopping wood, household chores or taking care of a garden. That sort of thing was appealing. And it also seemed like a way to reduce expenses. Instead of going to the mall for entertainment, we could go for a walk in the woods.”

As the family was emptying the cupboards and packing boxes, a job that Marie had set her sights on didn’t pan out and Jim lost his job. The family was devastated but the move was underway. In an attempt to rebound, Jim started his own roofing company to provide for the family. It was a good move and considering that Jim and Marie’s new landlord was in the real estate business, he had a sincere interest in supporting Jim’s business so that they could make rent every month. Through the business, Jim can bring in enough money to pay the bulk of the bills but the work is seasonal and the winter months are very lean and very tough.

*****

In February 2013, Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) released a report titled, It’s More than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being. A survey of over 4,000 individuals in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area provided a detailed picture of what precarious employment looks like in Southern Ontario. Where it may have once been assumed that recent immigrants, racialized minorities, women and those with lower educational attainment levels were likely to be afflicted by precarious employment, the report dispelled that perception finding that people employed in a wide range of economic sectors, including ‘white-collar’ jobs -and in particular the knowledge economy, education, health care, media, and public sector jobs, all face increased employment insecurity. The report confirmed what many have suspected –precarious employment is becoming a norm among a growing class of workers in Ontario.

The above findings spurred efforts to further flesh out the matter of precarious employment in Southern Ontario and a second report, The Precarity Penalty was released in May 2015. A surprising finding of the report uncovered that middle-class homes are also affected by precarious employment. These workers are found in universities and colleges employed as contract lecturers and research assistants, in hospital and government as contract nurses and office staff, and in non-profit agencies where front-line positions rely on short-term grants to pay their wages. These jobs can be characterized as precarious owing to factors that could include that the work is temporary, sparse hours and low-wages.

By contrast, low-income earners are often employed in unstable jobs that pay minimum wage. These workers can be found in sectors that include the fast-food industry, cleaning and service industry, and in manufacturing. The nature of the low-income earners employment is often on-call or casual, and there is no guarantee of work hours or a predictable weekly schedule.

The report uncovered that among middle and low-income earners who are precariously employed, over 80% did not receive health benefits.

An interesting finding of the report revealed that greater than 40% of people employed in the knowledge or creative sectors are in precarious work. As well, more than one quarter of precarious jobs requires a university degree.

Across all income groups the report identified that precarious work is increasing stress in the home and reducing community participation rates. The report cautions that these findings “raise serious concerns regarding the potential breakdown of social structures as precarious employment becomes more of the norm in Canadian society.”

*****

Surviving month to month is terrifying and nobody in this small family is spared from the reality of poverty. Marie’s son continues to attend school in the Sault, with Marie making the drive five days a week to get him there. She drives in for her own educational studies and part-time work as well.

Her son saves the birthday money and Christmas money he receives as gifts to apply to the expenses his parents just can’t cover –like a $50 dollar field trip, a sub from the Subway, and when there’s a shortfall in the household budget, he provides his gift money to gas the car. Marie, in her soft voice, speaks about this but most people don’t open up about how very young people are not only providing for their own dental work in households where there are no benefits, or paying for those field trips and school supplies that can really add up, or paying for their team sports, or contributing to the household grocery budget so that everyone has enough to eat. And while it is great for young people to contribute to some of these expenses, when the contribution is made not because of a character building effort from parents, but because parents just can’t provide for those costs -sometimes not even the basics, it is an awful feeling.

Their grocery budget is tight and to make sure that there is enough to eat, Marie is diligent about finding the best deal when shopping. While she hasn’t dared the yellow-sticker 40% off meat, she does go for the reduced produce. “I like to feed my son fruit and lots of it,” she said. “If I can find a bunch of ripe pears marked down in a package I’m pretty happy about that. I want ripe pears anyways.”

And when unexpected expenses come up that compromise the grocery budget, Marie is grateful that her son has a young person’s palate. “When we run out of everything I send him to school with pasta for lunch. And he love’s pasta so he’s happy about it. But lunch snacks for school do add up.”

Jim was going to speak with the Northern Hoot about his experience with precarious employment but a series of events last week has left him feeling anxious and depressed, and he just wasn’t up for a conversation.

“He’ll snap out of it soon,” remarks Marie. “But I can understand how this struggle can really wear people done. A week ago we would have been a lot more hopeful that we are today. Our mental health is on the edge.”

A few days ago the power company threatened to turn off their power due to Jim and Marie, not being able to pay their bill -$400 to $600 every month, their $1,500 monthly rent for February had yet to be paid and somehow the couple had to magically produce $1,000 to cover their son’s Grade 8 end of year school trip.

“I was dealing with all of this, and I was trying to study for exams and I just couldn’t because I was too anxious. Sometimes you feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and sometimes you can’t see it,” admits Marie.

Marie sucked up her pride and called her uncle for help. “Without my uncle, we wouldn’t be paying the power bills, my son’s trip and my rent.”

Marie grew up in poverty, her mother received support through Ontario Works, and they moved from one geared to income apartment unit to the next. When the struggle continued in her married life Marie chose not to apply for geared-to-income housing though the family would have qualified. For Marie it was important that she felt like she was moving away from poverty.

“Even though it was hard, and still is hard, it makes me feel better, like I’m doing better. But it’s really an illusion but it’s one I’m willing to suffer through,” she admitted.

Marie’s mother was able to overcome her straitened circumstances and today has a professional and stable career. But going to extended family for help is not something that Marie relishes and she avoids talking about their daily struggle to survive with her mom and her uncle, reserving those conversations for the times when the situation is really extreme- like avoiding eviction or threats of having the power shut off. Calling in those lifelines are difficult for Marie, who feels like her family might not always understand how difficult it is to obtain a stable income or that she and Jim are exhausting themselves trying to make ends meet.

“I think people use to worry about me a lot more before but my educational accomplishments have lessened those concerns. And as far as having an opinion about my situation, my educational situation has helped with that. They can only fault me so much for not being rich. But I don’t like talking about how difficult it is with my family, because I don’t want to stress them. I do know that I’m a lot luckier than other people because I do have people to call if I have a financial emergency.”

As for March, Marie doesn’t know where the money is coming from. “This isn’t really new to us. This is how it is.”

Until the snow melts and spring arrives, Jim is unable to take on any roofing work. Marie has also surpassed her lifetime limit to collect OSAP. Her tuition has been entirely paid by bursaries. Applying for Ontario Works is a complicated matter for Marie.

“I have a major impediment when it comes to those sorts of services because Jim doesn’t have the right paperwork. The entire process is not easy. Jim lost his ID and he’s not very ‘form happy’. I’ve had to reapply for his birth certificate And Jim hasn’t done his taxes for a while. He doesn’t make enough to owe anything but he doesn’t get anything back either and we don’t have the money to get his taxes done in the first place,” Marie remarks matter-of-factly.

*****

Regarding Northern Ontario, research around precarious employment is unchartered territory, however, NORDIK Research Institute, has launched a Sault Ste. Marie centred study about the matter. According to one of the researchers, Karen Harasymiw, the research is in support of the Poverty Roundtable –co-chaired by the United Way, in their efforts to reduce the impacts felt by poverty.

Harasymiw provided, “This roundtable is divided into various targeted sectors one of which is workforce entry. This sector is where this research came to be as there is a huge trend of precarious employment and underemployment across Canada and the Poverty Roundtable would like to know if these trends that we are seeing are current within the city of Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to Harasymiw, the research aims to provide a better understanding of precarious employment and underemployment in the Sault that encompasses the nature of employment within the city and barriers to sustainable employment. The research also seeks to work towards solutions.

“An aspect of this research is to identify solutions as we have asked participants within interviews and focus groups what supports they feel would help support them within their employment,” commented Harasymiw.

Referencing existing research Harasymiw remarked of the overlapping issues associated with precarious employment. “…precarious employment and underemployment [is]very unsustainable. Some of the aspects that make it unsustainable are the lack of hours, minimal wage, lack of benefits, unpredictable work hours, high lay off rate, minimal room for promotion/growth within the company and the insecurity of not knowing if you will have a job for the years -or even months, to follow.”

At this point information about precarious employment in the Sault is anecdotal. “My fellow researchers and I know that there is definitely a trend of precarious employment but in terms of what it looks like, this is something that we are still piecing together. We received amazing input from the people of Sault Ste. Marie and we are currently in the process of finding the trends within the information that we have been provided with.”

It is anticipated that the final report will be released in July 2017.

Worth noting is that many people living in rural areas around Sault Ste. Marie, like Marie and Jim, rely on finding employment in the Sault.

*****

“We just found out from census data that our community is shrinking. Well I wonder why?” posits Marie ironically. “People like me for instance, out here in Goulais, rely on Algoma Power and they have some of the highest electricity rates in the province.”

An October 2016 report by the Financial Post revealed that people in Algoma and Atikokan suffer the second highest rates in the province paying $222.68 and $209.62 respectively with HST for 1,000 kWh of power.

“That’s got to be a major problem for a lot of people,” remarked Marie. “And it makes me wonder if I should stay here. And I don’t want to go back to the Sault. I’ve made a community here. I’m very close to my neighbours. One of my neighbours brought me coffee the other day because he knew that I didn’t have any. And if we run out of wood, they help us with wood. And we do those things together in the spring. We all get together and help each other with wood.”

Not unlike many graduates with university degrees who can’t find a sustainable job in their field, Marie will be pursuing further education to advance her appeal when job hunting.

“At a certain point I believe that it’s going to pay-off. But the only way I can see that happening is through medical school. That’s what I’m gunning for. And if that doesn’t work then yeah, I’m going to have to really figure it out.”

Having completed all of her education in the North, Marie hopes to find acceptance at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and it is likely that Marie will win a seat either at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay or at Laurentian University in Sudbury. The family unit will remain intact during Marie’s years of study.

“This is definitely the time.  We’re ready. I’ve been preparing myself over the years for this decision which will involve uprooting my son and moving to a place where we don’t know anyone but we are willing to do that.”

But then there is the other possibility -one that may or may not fit with her pursuit of higher education.

Marie and Jim have considered fostering youth who are currently in long-term care in Sault Ste. Marie. In a follow up message volunteered by Marie, she wrote:

I didn’t mention that we are in the middle of the process to become foster parents. I felt that the topic of our conversation was a bit different than that. It’s not a job that we want to do for money. In fact it is something we would do even if we had everything we needed already. Our best assets is our happy family and a five bedroom beautiful home that we live in and we only wish we would have thought of this sooner. We are very excited, especially our son, to be able to share our home and help three other children in our community. We will be ready by April to start this new journey.

Referring to the fleetingness of her son’s youth she added:

I honestly love taking care of the home. I want more time to cook and clean and from 13 years old on goes so fast. I really want to be able to take it all in while I have the chance. Jim will be able to continue roofing and I will be a full-time mom. And I can still do my research.

Marie and Jim’s decision to foster ties in with their decision to give up the City life in pursuit of something that is more connected to the basics. Reflective of their own gratitude, Marie acknowledges that their difficult path has shaped some very fundamental values that informs this next stage of their life. Marie wrote:

Our decision to do this is exactly part of our ideal lifestyle. Our goals are to contribute to the notion of community and spread the love and kindness that we have been so lucky to have experienced. We would not have made it here or this far without help and support from our family, friends, neighbours and our landlord, whose kindness to us has been infinitely appreciated. Without this slice of country life we wouldn’t know what we are capable of. The hope from the foster organization and ourselves is that we can help keep the youth, who are inspired most by nature, away from the city strife.

The uncertainty of income is no doubt a miserable way of life but Marie’s story hits on something that may be very obvious –even absent of research, in terms of surviving or overcoming the unstable evolution of employment in the province, in Canada, as we wait for the ‘solutions’. We need to take better care of one another because we’re all in it together.

Tom Stoppard, a playwright and screenwriter said it simply:

…you would give your life for your children, or give them the last biscuit on the plate. But to me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbour, your village and beyond.

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