Nobody Asked Me But: Workerless society not so far-fetched

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Imagine this. You pull into the Lady Minto Hospital parking lot, park your vehicle and proceed to the hospital screening hut to answer the inevitable Covid questionnaire checklist and be allowed through the automatic front doors into admissions. However, there is nobody doing the screening. 

In fact, there is nobody in sight anywhere. You enter the building, splash a little antiseptic on your palms and proceed to the little machine that spits out numbered tickets which tell the staff at the front desk what order to admit patients.

After a couple of minutes go by, you look up at the overhead screen and notice that the numbers have not changed since you first tore off your ticket. You are still a long way from having your number called. It is at this point that you look through the glass partitions and notice that the usual admissions staff are not seated in their places. They are nowhere to be found.

You feel a weirdness settling in. Where is everybody? You wander down the deserted hallways, peeking occasionally through an open doorway or into an abandoned waiting room. No doctors, no nurses, no lab technicians. Even the hard-toiling cleaning staff have vanished into the ether. The building is so devoid of human activity that there might as well be tumbleweed blowing through the empty corridors.

Sound a little far-fetched? A bad dream, maybe? Well, yes, admittedly so. However, it is not so far off the mark as to be outside the realm of possibility. It was only a couple of weeks ago that a Driftwood website headline read, “Staff Shortage Closes Lady Minto Hospital Admissions.” According to the article, patients waiting for hospital beds apparently were being diverted to the Saanich Peninsula Hospital because of staff shortages at Lady Minto. Although this action was put in place as just a temporary measure and did not involve the emergency department, it might be a sign of the times for what might be awaiting us in the near future.

Only a few days earlier I had witnessed the effects of this worker shortage. I had arrived at Lady Minto for my regular blood work at the lab, but was surprised to see a fairly long line-up of people standing six feet apart while waiting to be screened. As I later learned, the bottleneck was caused by the absence of the regular staff in admissions. As a result of this understaffing, the person doing the screening was also in charge of admitting each person in the line, processing each requisition, and entering the information in the computer files. This required her having to go back and forth between the screening hut and the admissions office as the line-up continued to grow longer and longer. The added stress that this was causing to the task was certainly more than anything that would have appeared in the job description (for example, position offers excellent opportunities for career advancement and/or heart attack).

Later that same day, I pulled my vehicle up to one of the pumps at the Ganges Gas station. Although normally a full-service establishment, on this particular day there was a small, handmade sign taped to each pump informing customers that due to staff shortages, patrons would have to pump their own gas until more employees could be hired. I shuddered for a moment at the image being formed in my imagination of a gargantuan fireball visible from deep space that resulted from someone’s careless self-serve attempt to top up their barbecue bottle from the station’s propane tank.

Not that much later on the very same day I read a notice online that one of our favourite eateries was cutting hours of operation and shutting down its table service on Tuesdays because of — you guessed it — staff shortages. How long can it be before the term “counter service only” means you make your own sandwich, bus your own counter space, and wash all your dishes? And don’t even think about getting a share of the tip.

Why all this recent decrease in the work force? Much of the blame has to be laid on the COVID pandemic. So many in the labour pool, especially those in the non-essential service industry, were laid off or had their jobs disappear completely when government restrictions made it all but impossible for the industry to continue. Federal and provincial subsidies, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the Canada Recovery Benefit to name just a couple, helped ease the pain from loss of income while unemployed workers waited for the tide to shift as the economy rebooted itself. Many have taken the forced opportunity to retrain themselves or to initiate their own online businesses, which can be operated from the confines of their own homes.

Even essential services, such as health and medical-related fields, saw their employees leaving in droves due to a combination of low pay, overwork, high stress and dangerous working conditions. And this does not even address the huge issue of lack of housing.

The resulting work force shortage is not, as some economists claim, just a matter of people not wanting to go back to work. Rather, they are making the statement that they are no longer willing to put their health and safety on the line, especially if they are working at jobs that marginalize their value as human beings. Even better-paid skilled workers such as nurses are leaving the profession rather than accepting assigned double and sometimes triple shifts as well as being given forced overtime.

If this trend continues, we may find ourselves on the verge of a workerless society. Every business or government office could take on the look of those big box stores such as Home Depot or Walmart. Acres of merchandise but not a single soul to tell you where to find that vegetable peeler you’re looking to purchase.

Nobody asked me, but it’s quite possible that the future is going to be self-serve all the way. A debit card, a digital eye scan and a microchip implant may be all we need to open any door for us or fill any of our needs and wants. Just like the automated boarding pass dispensers and baggage check-in machines at the airport, or the self-check-out scanners at many supermarkets, we will be able to do it all ourselves without the assistance of any paid employees.

And instead of punching a button to get a number to get processed by the admitting department at Lady Minto Hospital, we just might be able to bypass all the red tape and be allowed to do the procedure ourselves. Hip replacement, anybody? 

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