How COVID-19 changed summer jobs for one Cortes student

This story is about how COVID-19 changed summer jobs for one Cortes student, I’m interviewing Natalia Nybida, a Vancouver Island university student, going into her second year. Originally airing on CKTZ 89.5fm, this is an excerpt of the Q+A, with photos. 

Home on Cortes

Q: You grew up on Cortes, describe your Island home 

Natalia:…my home is kind of in the direct center of the Island. So it’s surrounded by trees and it’s nice and quiet, but if you want to go to any of  the stores or anything, it’s like a 20 minute car ride or walking for three hours. So it’s definitely different from the kind of life that most people live nowadays. 

Q: Last summer, you came home from school boarding out and had a summer job. Tell me why that’s important for university students. 

Natalia: I was living in Ucluelet for high school for the last two years, actually. And it was actually quite a lot like where I grew up because it was quiet. It was a really small town. There’s probably a thousand people… So it was, it was like a sleepy last year. And,  I finished a couple months earlier than I expected. So I came back to Cortes and there wasn’t work right away because it’s pretty seasonal over here. So I was just hanging out with my family for a month. And then I started working at a kitchen, at Hollyhock, which is a retreat center. So it was nice to just have a break from school and get to see my family. See my siblings, they’re my best friends, and save up some money.

Vancouver Island University 

Q: Okay. So living at home with your family does help you save up quite a bit for tuition. That’s a big part of university students returning home. Was that true in your case? Did it help you save? 

Natalia :Yeah. I’d tried to get a job during the school year, but it was a small town. So there was really no work during the winter for people who don’t have a degree or experience. So yeah,  nothing saved up and VIU is relatively inexpensive compared to other universities, but it’s still a decent amount of money. So  I was able to save up quite a bit because Cortes-  there’s not really many places to blow your money. So besides going to a store for ice cream,  it was just going into my savings account. 

Q: Okay. So what about this year? Tell me about the first couple of weeks of COVID while you were still at VIU. 

Natalia: It was kind of surreal… I was living in dorms and lots of people started moving out and it got really quiet and our classes had to switch to online really quickly, which I’m sure was hard for the teachers. At the time I was working, in a deli and a grocery store, lots of changes happened there really quickly to accommodate for COVID, which was strange…. And then I returned to Cortes, which is probably the safest place I could have been at the time, because I don’t know, in Nanaimo things got pretty bad. It was just kind of scary to go out. 

summer jobs - A lot of students go treeplanting
After a fire – Submitted photo

Finding a summer job

Q: Okay. So then you quickly had to come up with a plan B because- what happened about returning to your job here on Cortes? 

Natalia: Yeah, I counted on coming back to the kitchen this summer hopefully has a second chef, but that wasn’t going to happen because they didn’t even know if Hollyhock was going to open. And even if they did, it would probably be fewer hours. And as someone who had only worked there a year, I probably wasn’t gonna get back in there if they were having to be selective about who they’re bringing in. So Cortes doesn’t have that many summer jobs for students to begin with because there aren’t that many job opportunities. So clearly they’re going to choose the people with more experience. So I kind of decided to try the tree planting, which I’d wanted to for a few years at the time, but it was getting pretty close to the start of the season. So I didn’t think I was going to find work, but I was lucky enough to.

Q: So tell me about that job. 

Natalia:… I got the job like a month before the season was supposed to start, but they didn’t even know if the season was going to happen because of COVID. And then when the government said that, tree planting was essential work, then at least they knew what was going to happen, but they didn’t know when it was going to. And they had to put in all these new rules and restrictions to make it safe for everybody.  

Q: So starting with those plans- it was the communities, they had needs too, right? The communities were requesting that full plans were in place? You couldn’t fly in from all a variety of locations and land in their small community. 

Natalia: Yeah. The first place that we were going to was the Ashcroft- Cache Creek area,  which like they’re just two little towns, like 30 minutes apart. But the residents didn’t feel safe with having random people streaming in, which is why the bus has happened.

summer jobs
Bringing the trees in – submitted photo

Physical Distancing while tree planting

Q:  So tell me more about the physical distancing measures and how that turned out to be different from a normal tree planting camp. 

Natalia: Our crew was two trucks and then, two big trucks that carry the trees and then the trucks that,  our boss drove and everybody who was in the different trucks, like each one, well, my boss was one of the leaders and then each one had another leader who like they would go to different blocks usually. And then they would instruct the one how we were going to plant the blocks. So usually the trucks would switch up every few weeks, but because of COVID, we didn’t switch, well, we switched once, but it was two months into the season. So by that time, everyone was pretty tired of each other. So it was nice when that eventually happened. But besides that we just stayed at the motels. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t even get our own groceries. And the second place we stayed at was bigger than the first. So there was actually,  one or two other crews besides us staying there, but we didn’t really get to see them because we were all on different floors and our work schedules were different. So we were never really off at the same time, which was kind of weird cause like they were there, but they weren’t there. We had been told like the government put out this whole like manual thing of the restrictions and stuff that we’re going to have to be in place for it to happen. Mealtimes, each crew had a different meal time, so they were kind of separated. And then also, usually people like to pack their own lunches, make their sandwiches, whatever in the mornings, but they had all that premade. So we just picked up a bag. 

 Q: Challenges? 

Natalia: Well, up until then, I had only worked really like summer jobs. I’d done babysitting for many years and then some cleaning and then working in the kitchen and then working in the deli part time during the school year. But this was like the first experience I had with full time work. And as a first experience with that, it was quite intense because it’s different from, I think, any other kind of full time work where it was just like, we were actually pretty lucky because we were working three days on and then one off. Whereas I think usually it’s like five days on one off, which is insane. So that made it slightly more manageable, but it was still pretty intense. It was like nine hour days. We had a couple eight, which were pretty nice, but on average it was nine. And then I think the longest we worked was like 11 or 12.

summer jobs
Treeplanting – submitted photo

Q: Successes?

Natalia: Yeah. Um, there were like number successes, which I think most people who do that, that’s what they would consider as their main successes. Like my first, well, when, at the first time I hit a thousand, which was after like a month of planting, it felt so good. And then within the second month it was like 12,017. And then I think it was a month and a half in that I hit, uh, 2,200, which was kind of insane. And I don’t know what they did differently, but I think, I don’t know, just the group of people they hired that year. Like so many of the new people were just insanely good for whatever reason. 

So I was working with people who like, it was their first year and they were hitting 2000 every day. So, and on average, like most new people hit a thousand a day. Like that’s the maximum they’re doing. So it was like, it felt like a lot of pressure, but it also kind of like pushed me to do better. But I think it was two months into the season that I kind of realized that that was really not something that I wanted to keep doing. Like, it just didn’t feel like the thing for me, but I was like, I’m already here, I’m gonna finish it. So I kind of changed my mentality to, instead of trying to make like a certain number of certain amount in a day, like just get through the day, try to not have a terrible time, just like one day at a time, because I just really wanted to finish the season for myself so that I could feel good knowing that I’d finished something and something so challenging.

Q: Lasting impact for you?

Natalia: Overall… it being such a mental job.  I learned so many lessons just about myself and about life in general throughout the season, I literally went through two journals in three months of work. So that was, that was a really good feeling, that was kind of a success in itself for me. But besides that, I think I just became much more aware of the extent of logging in BC…

Last look at the terrain – submitted photo

The Fairy Creek Blockade

Q: What was the first thing you did when you were done?

Natalia:.. a friend shared a post about the Fairy Creek Blockade. It was happening in Port Renfrew and it was like 11:00 at night and I  went down a rabbit hole and it’s so close…  seeing the extent of logging in BC first hand over the summer. It was really fresh to me and I was like, I really have to do something. So the next day I went …it was raining when I got there. So they dropped me at the foot of the logging road and I was given instructions to take every left. So I took every left as hiking uphill, the whole land, the rain, it was like a six kilometer walk… I was soaked by the time I got there and  there’s like a little group of people, lots of people are leaving because of the rain. So by the time I set up my tent, there was only like three people who were still staying there. 

… the trees were the biggest trees that I’ve ever seen… mostly old growth and it was so beautiful. It was like walking into the forest there-it was like a completely different world. And it was kind of hard to imagine that– it used to be like that. And being around them kind of made you realize like how small you were, which was quite humbling. And I just wondered: how back in the day, anybody could be living there and look up and feel like they were in the position to control something like that. 

So the week after that, I went back to stay with my family on Cortes, which was nice. And that’s where I am now, just relaxing in the forest. 

The following radio broadcast was funded by a grant from the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative

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