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At the end of her workday, construction worker Erica Leblanc-Deschatelets feels the impact of her workday on her body. “I’m tired, I’m dusty. I feel like I breathed in so much dust that I just lost a year off my life!” Working for a large company, her days are long and the workload is never ending. She now works freelance so she has more control over her schedule, prioritizing making time for social and political activities in her community.

“I try not to stress at work. I’ve been there so many times, in jobs that took a lot of energy and stressed me out, and so then I would get up in the morning, I wouldn’t really eat, I’d be in a hurry […] It wasn’t good for me; it wasn’t a good life.” 

Doorstep to doorstep

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments applauded and thanked essential workers and called them heroes. But after the Quebec government lifted many pandemic restrictions in 2022, essential workers were expected to continue working long hours, despite the heightened risk of exposure to COVID and the government cutting the pay incentive for essential work a few months into the pandemic. 

In the fall and winter of 2022 and 2023, I interviewed essential workers in construction, agriculture, postal services, and health care about their working conditions, what they find most difficult, and the impact of long work days on their bodies. I documented workers at the beginning of their workdays getting ready for work and on their commute, and at the end of their workdays making dinner and reflecting on the day. This photo essay shares an intimate portrayal of the working lives of essential workers, and the physical and emotional impacts of labour on the body.

Keniya-Frederika Jean, hospital orderly

 Keniya-Frederika starts their morning routine at 5:40 a.m: they wake up, get dressed, wash their face, and do some yoga before eating and leaving to catch the bus. Each day before their shift as a hospital orderly, Keniya-Frederika has to call in with the hospital office to confirm which department they're working in that day. This means that each day they work in a new department of the hospital with a new team, which Keniya-Frederika finds very stressful. "Every day it's a new environment so I have to ask some questions, and sometimes people don't have a lot of patience to explain to you."

Catherine Pigeon, nutritionist

On a late November day before the sun rises, Catherine wakes up as her partner continues sleeping. She sits alone at her kitchen table eating and looking at her phone. "I fully wake up once I get to work. I'm in an in-between state. I can still get places, I can still talk to people, but like, I'm half there until I get to work and then I have to be fully present."

Agnès Gaudreau, mechanic

 Each day before work, Agnès wakes up early so they have time to relax in bed, do some gentle morning yoga and stretches, practice their dancehall technique, and make coffee with breakfast. This morning routine, which includes a lot of movement, isn't optional: “Being a mechanic is really tough on the body, so it’s important to take care of your body by doing this stuff […] It’s absolutely necessary for me to eat well in the morning, for me to take supplements […] to make sure I don’t catch COVID.”

Amy Collier, postal worker

 Before Amy begins her mail delivery route, she commutes at least 45 minutes from her apartment to her workplace. Like many other essential workers, her neighbourhood and her workplace are in public transit deserts. The infrequent bus schedule adds at least 30 minutes to her daily commute, which is especially arduous after a long day of being on her feet and climbing stairs. By the time she gets home, she is extremely physically fatigued.

 Jenna Jacobs, farm worker

Jenna works on a cooperative vegetable farm. As a single parent and the only farm worker in the winter, Jenna has no choice but to work every day. "I was sick today, but I still had to get up, still had to get my kids ready and get them to school. I still have to feed the chickens and milk the cows. I've really just done the minimum today. I have to work on Christmas Day and on my birthday." In this photo Jenna cooks the family supper as her kids complete their homework at the kitchen table.

 

*Some of Erica Leblanc-Deschatelets and Agnès Gaudreau’s quotes have been translated from French to English by Ariadne Lih.

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