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Some Canadian companies embarking on hiring sprees amid COVID-19 layoffs

Last Updated Mar 19, 2020 at 2:16 pm EDT

People pass by a Shoppers Drug Mart in downtown Toronto on Monday, July 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

TORONTO — While scores of Canadian employers have been laying off workers across the country amid an outbreak of novel coronavirus, Cherif Habib has been doing the exact opposite.

His Montreal-based provider of telehealth services is adding 250 employees to the company, including nurse clinicians and practitioners, social workers and psychologists to keep up with a “sharp” increase in demand.

“We had 700 companies working with us before the crisis and now we’re up to nearly 800,” said the co-founder and CEO of Dialogue Technologies.

“Very early in the crisis it was clear to us that we were going to play a big role in this, so we really accelerated our recruitment efforts and our growth efforts.”

Dialogue is part of a growing group of businesses feeling the strain as Canadians clamour for products and food to be delivered to their homes, empty supermarket shelves, seek increasingly levels of health care and bombard servers and networks for remote work.

The closure of many retailers, public spaces and services as the country self-isolates for the foreseeable future is putting so much pressure on those companies still operating that many say they have to hire to keep up.

Health-care workers, nurses and doctors are being lured out of retirement to handle increasing patient loads.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said by Tuesday 10,000 people had sent in resumes to help the health-care industry and more than 3,000 nurses in Ontario stepped forward by Monday afternoon after the Registered Nurses’ Association asked for help answering telehealth phone lines.

Meanwhile, Loblaw Companies Ltd. supermarkets and Shoppers Drug Drug Mart locations posted a slew of job openings across the country this week as they scramble to keep stores stocked to meet demand. The companies are seeking pharmacists, pharmacy assistants, grocery clerks, warehouse assemblers and merchandisers.

“In order to keep things running smoothly, we need a full team in stores and distribution centres. We also need to be able to give our current team a break,” said Mark Wilson, Loblaw and Shoppers’ head of human resources, in an email.

“We’ve reached out to the retail industry, and to many large employers who have been impacted during this time. We don’t know how much help we’ll need, or where, but if there are people looking to be employed and paid right now, maybe we can help each other out.”

Henry Goldbeck, the president of Vancouver-based Goldbeck Recruiting, said businesses are hiring for healthcare, delivery, medical manufacturing, finance, telecommunications, supply chain and remote-work technology even as the outbreak sickens more Canadians and closes rising numbers of workplaces.

“Some companies are even going to be adjusting their work and what they do because there’s going to be more funds available to work in areas like telecommunications,” he said.

Food businesses, he said, may have their pick of employees because so many restaurants have closed, putting more people from the industry on the job market. But highly skilled or in-demand workers will be harder to snatch up.

People who have kept their jobs amid the crisis will also be harder to lure away because they will be wary of uncertainty a new company can bring, he said.

Goldbeck has, however, noticed many other companies have decided to delay hirings.

“We have a client that makes a high-end ingredient for cosmetics and they ship that to cosmetics manufacturers around the world…and they just put a position on hold for a few months,” he said.

Goldbeck said another client based out of Montreal that makes tapes is extremely busy because of heightened demand for shipping.

“But they put a (sales) position on hold in Texas because the person can’t go out on the road and meet people.”

But many like Peter Sanagan, the owner of Toronto-based butcher Sanagan’s Meat Locker, can’t hold off on bringing in reinforcement.

When the coronavirus was starting to spread across Canada, he got frank with his employees. He told them if they weren’t comfortable coming to work, they shouldn’t feel the pressure because they have accrued vacation and sick days they can dip into. He promised to hold their jobs. Five took him up on the offer.

His stores were still being packed with people looking for meat to fill their freezers and feed their families, so he upped the shifts of some students whose classes had been cancelled and also hired temporary workers.

Most of his new employees do front-of-house work or are cashiers.

It has added a cleaning shift to sanitize everything and added someone to work at the entrance to ensure the correct number of people are admitted to the store, Sanagan said.

“There are these new kinds of roles that are easy to fill with without training.”

They know the jobs won’t last forever, but many need an income or just want to assist in a tough time.

“It’s just a way of keeping us staying open and safe, but at the same time ticking every box, so full-time staff feel that they can take their time off, offering some shifts to people that are in need of money right now and doing what we can.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:L)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press