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Times Change Women’s Employment Centre:

Continuing client support when hit by a pandemic.

Author: Hillary Di Menna

Karen Hoffmannn-Zak was in the middle of speaking with a client when she was called into an emergency meeting. It was early March, where similar meetings were happening all over Ontario. Surprised to be called into a meeting so quickly, she wouldn’t have guessed she was leaving her last in-person meeting for the foreseeable future. “We were not expecting a shut down,” says the Times Change employment counsellor and facilitator.

Times Change Women’s Employment Centre is a Toronto non-profit community agency. For almost 50 years, Times Change has been helping women, of all ages and backgrounds, with employment services such as educational counselling, resume clinics, a resource centre; workshops around career planning, job searching, computers, LinkedIn and more. These services have only expanded since the pandemic, as women need more support than ever in an already difficult job search environment. Katie Didyk, Times Change’s Communications Coordinator, describes the Centre as a collective with a wealth of health, vibrancy, and guided action.

When businesses started to shut down, childcare resources became even more inaccessible, and the cycle of schools reopening and closing began, we saw what many are referring to as a she-cession, as coined by Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan. “There was a huge loss of employment, especially for women,” says Hoffmann-Zak, noting that the industries closing – retail, hospitality, service – are ones typically staffed with women.

The Pandemic taking its toll on clients

“It’s been very tough for clients,” says Hoffmann-Zak, “The pandemic has really contributed to depression, anxiety, and a lack of motivation.” Job searching has changed. Job searchers are met with experiences such as robot interviews, or interviews over Zoom, accompanied by Zoom fatigue, strained eyes, panels of interviewers, and lack of true eye contact. “This is a whole way of interacting that may not be natural for some people,” the employment counsellor points out, adding, “People go into interviews self-conscious already- now you have a live picture of yourself!” Add to this the sounds of the home – a crash from kids playing in the kitchen, a dog barking at the window, a family member calling from another room – and all the technical difficulties in between. Many women are job searching while providing the unpaid care work families and communities rely on, especially within a global pandemic. As Didyk says, “Women are at the forefront of recovery.” She shares a statistic that women account for two-thirds of the 500,000 jobs that have yet to be reclaimed, “This is the reason a women-specific employment centre is critical to the recovery of Canada. Because we have the tools, strategies, and understanding of women in the workplace and we are positioned to help them navigate through the post-pandemic.”

Transitioning to remote work

Within a week of closing the physical office, the collective built an infrastructure where employees could work from home. Connections with clients were an immediate priority. Regular newsletters were created and sent, counsellors connected with their clients, and volunteers took to the phones as part of the Centre’s Caring Connections Programs, funded by the United Way. Clients were asked how they were doing, and what supports they needed. If a client needed access to a food bank, Times Change made that connection. If a client needed help applying for CERB, Times Change provided it. The Centre worked to make sure clients had internet access as well as a computer through their Tech Loan program, to ensure clients could continue their job search, attend school, and access Times Change services, such as workshops and resume clinics. Their Computer Support Coordinator helped people with tech questions and issues. A new workshop has been created, focussing on women in non-traditional careers, putting exposure and emphasis into STEM and skilled trades. The centre also offers educational counselling to help with women entering these male-dominated college programs. Didyk elaborates on the work Times Change does to support initiatives that equal the playing field for women and that ensure equitable inclusion, for example, “For years, we have advocated for universal childcare, so that women can have the opportunity to explore any careers they want, without the ‘motherhood penalty.’”

Adjusting to “The New Normal”. Online staff meeting at Times Change 

Embracing new opportunities

The past year, Times Change has been pioneering more programs and serving more people. Going online has allowed for province-wide programming, “Before the pandemic, we had no sense of how to connect with women outside of our vicinity,” says Hoffmann-Zak, “It’s wonderful that we can reach more women.” Times Change employees themselves have seen the benefits of having the option to work from home. The counsellor notes she would not want the Centre to permanently operate exclusively online, as the in-person appointments, and that physical presence and interaction, can provide important insight, beneficial to a client’s progress.

Times Change has created a community of staff and clients, “You never really leave Times Change,” Hoffmann-Zak laughs. “I do feel like my job is a privilege. I feel grateful to be a part of something, working with smart, informed people. It’s been very inspiring to see everyone come together, to act within the best interest of their clients. I have the ability to help people; it can really brighten my day. I get to see success, vulnerability, and honesty.” The collective maintains this honesty within their regular check-ins with one another, where they can have frank, open discussions, without the worry of losing their jobs. These check-ins are important, as this kind of work, this kind of care work, is understandably hard.

Work-Life balance in times of a pandemic

Both Hoffmann-Zak and Didyk cite finding a healthy work/life balance as a challenge. In addition to feeling worry for clients, the collective members are dealing with the uncertainty of the pandemic, like the rest of us. Didyk reminds herself, “You can control what you can control, let go of what you can’t.” Similarly, Hoffmann-Zak says, “You need to balance your job and your life. Without the balance, you will crash and burn.”

Perfectly illustrating such balances women are made to construct, Didyk’s 7-year-old can be heard in the background of our phone interview. His online class has wrapped up and he is begging to join his friends at the bike park. Remembering this in a follow-up interview, Didyk looks back, “The demands from him were genuine, he didn’t want to miss out and the guilt as a mom to see my child upset or sad in the moment is real.” As my daughter can be heard from her room, arguing with someone in her online class, I could definitely relate when Didyk, laughing said, “This is how it is, isn’t it. This is what we got to do.”  The careful weaving of life’s experiences is all too familiar to women, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Didyk reflects on the work Times Change has done, and the important work the collective has done amidst COVID, “We realized we are very capable. We have shown the courage and resilience needed for our future.”

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