Blaine Sparvie likes to think of himself as a casual labour contractor.
Affable and outgoing, Sparvie, who receives disability benefits, has managed to make his way over the last five years by offering his services to employers looking for temporary help. He helps them; their wages keep him sheltered and fed.
Finn, who asked that we not use his last name, was weeks away from being homeless in January. As his long-term struggle to find employment became more bleak, Finn found a ray of hope on a call list for temporary workers.
Victoria may boast one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country — 5.4 per cent — but guys like Finn and Blaine aren’t on Statistics Canada’s call list and their status doesn’t enter the equation when the unemployment rate nears what economists term full employment (5.0 per cent).
But they and others who face barriers to employment — poverty, lack of identification, transient housing — are on Wendy Stone’s list.
Stone, co-ordinator of the Victoria Cool Aid Society’s Casual Labour Pool, tries to match Finn, Blaine and the more than 1,000 people on that list with temporary and part-time work. But it’s getting tougher, she said, as the economy tightens and there are fewer people willing to give those on her list a chance.
“Right now, it’s a real challenge for people to find work,” she said, noting a change in the kinds of workers looking for employment. “More and more, I’m seeing people with greater skills and educational backgrounds, some who have never been unemployed but are now facing their 10th or 12th month of unemployment and are desperately looking for something.
“There’s definitely an increase in the number of people using our service. And it’s not just the typical demographic [homeless and poor]; the barrier may now be being new to the city and having no network or support here.”
More than 1,000 people are registered for the free service that tries to match the skills of willing workers with the requests of employers, who may be businesses or homeowners looking for a helping hand.
Stone said anywhere from 30 to 90 people check in daily to see what might be available.
Sparvie is one of them.
“But the pool has been a little slow these days,” he said.
“It was booming a while ago. There was something different to do every day.”
Sparvie’s disability means he’s “only good for six hours a day on his feet.”
“That makes it difficult for me to find full-time work,” he said. “The Casual Labour Pool gives me the ability to not work full-time but work when it’s available.”
Finn had been working on his PhD in Australia before his visa ran out. He had to return to Canada, with no support network, and said the pool saved him from life on the street.
“I looked into what services were available to either help from becoming homeless … that’s when I met Wendy, and it just happened they needed someone with data-entry experience — they sent me out and I’m still working at that place,” he said, adding the two days a week he works gives him stability to start rebuilding his life.
“Wendy was awesome to work with, she was not a bureaucrat or a big grey cloud … I didn’t get a ‘no’ from her,” he said. “It’s been the most challenging period of my life. It’s made no sense. I can’t even get job interviews to be a security guard. Wendy was a life saver.”
For her part, Stone said it’s about setting up suitable candidates with the right employers in a bid to help end homelessness. She estimates one in four people living in emergency shelters are employed.
“What’s unique about us is other employment services will charge the employer a premium and, from that, they pay the worker a wage. In our situation, we agree upon a wage with the employer and that goes 100 per cent to the worker — the employer saves some money and worker gets more money,” she said.
She also noted the service provides opportunities to connect employers with a labour force they may otherwise have ignored.
“Every month there are people who connect and are taken on by employers either part time or full time,” she said, noting employers may identify a good worker and want to keep them around.
That’s been Richard Grant’s experience.
The owner of Professional Choice Uniforms has used the pool for six years for warehouse and handyman type jobs. He has found “guys with real skills” that he has hired over and over.
“Sometimes they don’t work out, but, for the most part, they work hard,” he said, adding he’s found real gems in the mix. “They want to work, and I have rarely run into any problems.”
Employers with jobs or workers looking to register with the Casual Labour Pool can call 250-388-9296 or go to their website at coolaid.org/labour.