Real Talk: Seasonal work

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Death. Divorce. Job loss. Sometimes tough stuff happens. Unfortunately, these not-so-great milestones often come with a financial impact. So, what do you do if you’re getting a divorce? Or if a loved one suddenly passes away? Or if you find yourself with more debt than is comfortable? In our series, Real Talk for the Tough Stuff, we’ll tackle some of these situations head-on with the honest financial advice you need to get through and get on with life.

Next up, Real Talk for the Tough Stuff: Seasonal Work

It’s not uncommon for hard-working Atlantic Canadians to feel like those who “ride the pogey train” are cheating the system by resting their feet for a portion of the year. But the reality is, Atlantic Canada relies a lot on seasonal industry to keep our economy afloat. From tourism jobs to occupations like fishing and agriculture that are tied to the changing seasons, Atlantic Canada, as a region, has one of the highest rates of seasonal workers in the country.

Just because it’s a common occurrence, doesn’t always mean it’s easy to talk about or the decision is met with understanding and acceptance.

We spoke with Tyler*, Jillian*, and Rebecca* to get their perspectives on what it’s like to work seasonally, the impact its had on their finances, and how they afford to live on a seasonal income.

With so many niche career options, Tyler—like anyone else in their early 20s—was indecisive about his career goals. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, with no major, minor, or concentration, panic for what the real world would look like quickly set in. He had always worked seasonally at the local car dealership washing cars, but when it came time to get a “real” job, the options looked slim. Tyler landed a position in government on a four-month, then eight-month, term.

But, being a term position, eventually Tyler was laid off. In the beginning, this wasn’t unexpected, and he knew he would be able to ride through the summer living a simple lifestyle with his bi-weekly Employment Insurance (EI) payments. But when his insurance was about to run out—anxiety started to creep back. After an extensive job search to get back into the system of seasonal positions, Tyler was about to give up.

“Cover letter after cover letter, the crippling anxiety became overwhelming. I tried to get back into a government position so I could go through the cycle once more, but it didn’t work out. It really discouraged me from trying to reenter the workforce. I spent five months without any income at all. I ended up having to move back home just until I could get a job lined up. Now, I’m teaching kids English online. It’s not forever, and honestly doesn’t make me any money, but my cousin got me the job. Realistically, I’m hoping I can get back on to a seasonal job soon though so I can have employment insurance again and maybe move out of my parents’ house.”

Jillian, like many of her post-grad peers, found it difficult to find a job once she graduated from her post-secondary education. After applying to everything and anything, the opportunity to move back to her hometown in rural Nova Scotia and bartend at a local golf course came up and she couldn’t afford to say no.

She makes it work by staying at her family cottage during the summer months, which is conveniently located near the golf course she works at.

“For me, there’s more pros than cons for sure. I have never had that feeling of hopelessness from hating your job. The time goes by quickly and the tips are great,” Jillian explains. “Most of the time I feel good about it, but talking to people who have a year-round job can sometimes feel embarrassing. Everyone wants to know your business and is quick to judge, asking when I’m going to get a real job. At the same time, I make more money bartending than I would in an entry-level position in my field. On a good night, my average is high, around $75 an hour. I work six days a week with 10–12 hours days. I don’t take days off in the summer and I work straight through to the end of October. I feel like I’ve earned the time to relax in the colder months.”

For Jillian, she knows that this lifestyle has an expiration date. She hopes to one day work in her field and continues to keep an eye out for upcoming positions—which are rare in her rural town. In the meantime, she pats herself on the back for adding to her savings accounts when the tips are high.

Rebecca always dreamed of being a doctor. What she didn’t dream about or prepare for is the amount of cash it would take to pay for medical school. Though she was approved for a student loan, the prospect of paying all $375,000 of it back was overwhelming.

And knowing that even with a staggering amount of debt, she still wouldn’t be able to afford to live on her student loan solely, she has spent the last few summers picking up seasonal work in both government and tourism positions to help her finances stay in check.

“For me, working seasonally in government has made a lot of sense. My pay ended up being determined by level of education, so I was making more than my former hometown friends working at the same level. Compared to medical school, the position in government was easy and allowed me a save up some cash so I wasn’t pulling from my student loan,” Rebecca says.

“It’s scary knowing that I owe such a large amount of money. That’s why I always work seasonally when I can to make sure I spend my money in the right places.”

The saving grace for Rebecca is the knowledge that once she graduates, she should be able to pay off her student loan relatively quickly—but not everybody has the same outlook.

Working seasonally isn’t always a choice—sometimes it’s the economic reality of choosing to live in a setting where jobs are only available for portions of the year. And with the close link between money and mental health, the realities of seasonal employment can have broader implications that just a few months off during the year.

When you’re not sure what will come after the dollar sign on your paycheck, managing your money can feel like a never-ending nightmare. They key to making seasonal employment work for you and your finances is to have a plan. Making sure you have a long-term savings account, like a TFSA, or a dedicated monthly budget are good ways to set yourself up for success during the times when your income takes a dip.

Working seasonally and not sure how to manage your money? Reach out to your local credit union for honest financial advice.

*Names have been changed for privacy.