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September 20, 2022

In Conversation: Barb Neis on Families and Work-Related Mobility

Dr. Barb Neis (PhD) discusses families and employment-related geographical mobility.

September 20, 2022

Nathan Battams

Over the past decade, the Vanier Institute of the Family has worked with the On the Move Partnership to explore the topic of employment-related geographical mobility and share research and insights about the impacts of mobility on workers, their families, and their home communities. Many of these findings are highlighted in Families, Mobility, and Work, a new publication from Memorial University Press that brings together contributions from more than 40 contributors associated with this project.

Dr. Barb Neis (PhD), Principal Investigator for the On the Move Partnership and one of the editors of this publication, recently joined Nathan Battams from the Vanier Institute to discuss work-related mobility in Canada, and its impacts on families and communities.

Tell me about Families, Mobility, and Work and the involvement of the On the Move Partnership, both with regards to their origins and their goals.

The On the Move Partnership is a pan-Canadian initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). It explores extended or complex employment-related geographical mobility (ERGM) across Canada.

This project started about 10 years ago, and grew out of work that other researchers and I were doing on rural communities in Newfoundland, where we focused initially on fisheries. As we worked with communities to help them figure out ways to increase their resilience to things like the collapse of the cod stocks and changes happening in other industries, we realized that a lot of people – particularly men – had been leaving their communities for work and there wasn’t much information or data on where they went.

We soon realized that if we couldn’t figure out where they went and what they were doing, we couldn’t really work with these communities to build positive change. Something big was clearly happening – we’re talking about thousands of people on the west coast of Newfoundland, which is one of the areas that has the highest rate of rotational interprovincial employment in the province.

It started there, but then it became a national study, and spread across multiple sectors encompassing diverse mobility patterns, in both rural and urban areas. On the Move researchers and community partners examined these patterns, which included extended daily commutes within cities and regions; commutes that are not necessarily far, but that are extended in time due to complexities or barriers in transportation; those experienced by workers with physical disabilities and by those in areas with poor public transportation; and commuting to multiple locations on a daily basis, as in the case of home care workers. We also wanted to include a broad range of workers – from those who were employed in mobile and transient workplaces, such as truckers, railway, seafaring workers and fishermen – and construction and other workers who commute regionally and internationally to big projects and live in work camps, hotels, or temporary rental accommodations, or, in the case of live-in caregivers, in the homes of their employers.

While many of the workers in these sectors reside in rural areas, we were quite deliberate in including urban workers in On the Move. There is a tendency, in the research and in discussions on work and mobility, to focus on men doing ““fly-in, fly-out”” (FIFO) work and to see that as the situation with the most hardship and challenges. But, this often isn’t the most difficult situation for families when compared with extended daily commutes by public transit, or to precarious employment, which comes with low income and high transportation costs paid for by the worker. If you’re, say, a recent immigrant living in a remote part of a large urban centre, working family- and transit-unfriendly hours, such as at night, this can be at least as challenging as much FIFO work. The employment transience and marginalization of certain groups of workers engaged in precarious employment is also very important. You see this in other situations, such as with Uber drivers.

From the beginning, we were interested in understanding these different patterns and dynamics of mobility across sectors and groups, as well as their relationship to families and family life.

That’s a bit of the background. The edited collection Families, Mobility, and Work itself comes not just from On the Move but also from other projects. In 2018, we jointly organized a symposium at the University of Prince Edward Island with a project led by Christina Murray called A Tale of Two Islands, which was also funded by the SSHRC around the same time as ours. Their project was focused on the impact of rotational work on families in Cape Breton and on Prince Edward Island. Within the On the Move Partnership generally, the symposium, and the Families, Mobility, and Work book, we’ve also worked with the Vanier Institute, which has supported a lot of work on military families – a sector associated with high mobility for work but excluded from the other two projects.

This book is essentially a capstone project for the On the Move Partnership. It’s a rich and engaging compilation of research and reflections from On the Move and other researchers that highlights what we’ve learned and encompasses contributions from some with lived experiences of families affected by work-related mobility.

It brings together diverse formats, including academic articles but also personal stories, song lyrics, and even a photo essay, to make it more engaging and accessible to wider and often non-academic audiences. Being able to learn about things through reading not only reports on research findings but can also produce a richer and more accessible experience for the reader through personal stories and pictures. I think the stories help to ground the academic work in a different kind of space and voice that are not filled up with citations.

Having led this research project for a decade, what would you say have been some of the key takeaways that policy makers and decision makers should know about the impacts of work-related mobility on families and communities in Canada?

The first thing is that, when On the Move researchers explored the literature on work–life balance – which is huge – they found that little attention had been paid to the dynamics and impacts of extended or complex mobility between work and home on work–life balance.

So, the research picks up on something that is quite widespread and critically important that became more obvious during COVID-19. With exceptions, I think it had been taken for granted that workers live close to their work, engage in the same pattern of mobility every workday, and that family and other issues affected by mobility and commuting weren’t really the responsibility of the employer, despite employers’ control over work location and work scheduling. What On the Moved showed us – and what became particularly obvious during COVID-19, when our ability to stay at home depended on the willingness of others to be mobile for work – was that we should not leave mobility and commuting out of our analyses of work and family life, nor out of our corporate and government policies and planning.


There’s often an assumption that employees should or will move for work so that the commutes won’t be as bad, and many people do move adjacent to their work for this reason. But, with the growth in transportation and construction employment, the shift from company towns to mobile labour forces, the increased reliance on temporary foreign workers, and the increase in precarious employment, a growing number of workers often don’t know where the next job will be located or how long it will last. Furthermore, many work in mobile and transient workplaces, and may not earn high enough or secure sufficient wages to find affordable housing close to their work. It’s not surprising that people don’t live adjacent to the workplace in many cases – it’s just not feasible.

We had difficulty getting employers to engage with this research, but the work we did shows that even the big companies involved with moving thousands of workers around and often paying for their transportation (or some of it) really didn’t have proactive policies from the point of view of family. They would have an employee assistance program, for those having problems with their marriage or with drugs and alcohol, but there was no clear evidence that they were assisting employee wellbeing by addressing family needs, such as through the adjustment of work schedules, travel, and rotations.

Have you seen any longer-term trends or changes in these, either the patterns of work or the factors driving them or employer reactions?

One interesting thing about being in longer-term projects is that you inevitably see fluctuations and variability in whatever you’re researching, as well as their surrounding contexts. In the project’s early years, when we were looking at mobile workers from Newfoundland and Labrador who were working far from their families in Alberta, there was a concern initially that many wouldn’t return to work on big, shorter-term construction projects back in their home province. A few years later, we saw the downturn in the oil and gas sector, and Newfoundlanders and others went looking for work in other sectors and regions, including sometimes well up in the Arctic, often experiencing even more extended commutes and more prolonged absences. Construction workers often move from sector to sector – oil and gas, to mining, and so on. All of this was then exacerbated by public health measures introduced during the pandemic.

The pandemic wound up highlighting some of the policy gaps around mobility for work. Public health guidelines were to stay home, not go anywhere. But, of course, many people had to still go to work. For rotational workers, they might be away on a rotation, but when they returned, they would need to quarantine for two weeks. Then, by the time they got out of quarantine, they would have to go back to their jobs. To what extent did employers really seek to accommodate these workers? The provincial government in Newfoundland had to start adapting its programs to try to take into account rotational workers. We’re talking about thousands of people who had to go to work, because if it’s an essential service, and you don’t go to work, you don’t have a job.

During the pandemic, we saw some emergency reactions and short-term adaptations related to work-related mobility across multiple sectors and groups, including temporary foreign workers, but no real acknowledgement that there are issues that need to be addressed in more depth and with more substance, even outside of the pandemic.

In 2017, researchers from On the Move estimated that approximately 16% of workers were engaged in extended/complex mobility to and within work. Do you have any data or insights on whether this has changed since?

That’s an interesting question, but I don’t know where we are now. There have been disruptions during COVID-19, of course, and we know that temporary foreign workers coming into the country have been at greater risk of exposure to outbreaks because of accommodation and other issues. But we don’t know exactly what the labour market looks like right now. What I’ve seen around Newfoundland and Labrador is increased reliance on temporary foreign workers in sectors such as seafood processing and tourism because we have labour shortages.

It seems that, in some sectors, employers are increasingly opting for highly mobile, international labour migrants, who, as we know from the literature, face serious challenges. That doesn’t mean it is always a terrible situation, since they can make more money than they can elsewhere, but it does mean that many are having to work very hard to try to maintain family connections.

Sectors such as transportation, oil, and mining have been booming again, particularly since the war in Ukraine. Tourism is back up. But there are many questions. What’s now happening with precarious employment in urban areas? Are we shifting to more or less precarious employment in the context of so-called labour shortages? Are employers providing more job security? We don’t really know whether the place people are living in today in relation to where they are working or would like to work is changing or what transportation infrastructure they have access to, and what schedules and rotations they are working.

These kinds of things need to be carefully monitored on an ongoing basis to identify potential and real emergent issues for workers and their families. They are also important for employers because of their potential role in labour supplies, productivity, and other aspects of work.

Do you expect the census release on mobility and migration (October 26), or the one on journey to work (November 30), to provide any particular insights on any of these topics?

It will be interesting to see the data, because data from the 2016 Census showed an increase in average commute time among Canadian workers. But I don’t know what we can say about the trends with the 2021 data, because we were still living with COVID restrictions. I’m not sure how representative it could be in the longer term. The other problem with the census is that it underestimates things like interprovincial mobility, so we had to use other data sources in our work, including Statistics Canada’s Canadian Employer‐Employee Dynamics Database.

In our work, we focus on people who commute for at least 60 minutes to get to their workplace, who dedicate a significant portion of their day to mobility to and often within work, as with some homecare workers, truckers and transportation workers, or those who travel longer distances but less frequently. We had started off with a higher cut-off for our definition of extended mobility, but we then dropped it down to 60 minutes or longer. Not many people who are commuting daily do so for three hours a day or more, and once the research focus for daily commuters is broadened to 60 to 90 minutes each way, you start picking up a lot more people in the analyses.

But, again, these daily commutes only represent one type of mobility: going to work and staying in that place, then going home. And commute time is only one aspect of work-related mobility associated with specific challenges; there are also the issues of when mobility happens and of mobility that separates families for prolonged and often uncertain periods. Furthermore, for a growing number of shift workers, such as community health nurses and homecare workers, in the course of a day they go to their first workplace, then to the second and third places. If they’re using public transit, they also need to kill time between split shifts, having coffee in Tim Hortons or whatever. All of this has implications for families, as does the mode of transportation.

Not every part of the city has the same access to public transportation, and rural areas often lack public transportation. If you look at the maps on public transit, in terms of scheduling and access, you’ll find whole sections with gaps and less service. These are often areas that are low income with relatively large recent immigrant populations, which are far away from the downtown cores where many of their residents work, and transportation costs – whether for public or private transit – can use up a significant proportion of household income. It is also the case that extended/complex mobility by one person in a family can constrain the employment options of others by increasing their childcare and other responsibilities. Gender, race, class, and household composition intersect to affect options and situations.

During the recent flight delays, cancellations, and other issues at Air Canada, a lot of the discussion and focus tended to be on tourists and vacationers who were affected. But, in the middle of that, there are all these mobile workers – maybe they’re rotational workers or temporary foreign workers or just young people headed out west to get work – who are also having to navigate the mess. The employer may be paying, they may be paying, or it may be a shared cost. But the workers aren’t paid for this navigation. And, of course, they don’t want to miss a rotation, which can happen if flights are cancelled. And if that happens, it can mean a loss of their whole income for that period of time, posing serious challenges for families.

One interesting question is how employers and workers have been navigating this airline situation. We certainly know of workers who, when it got too complex, just started driving instead, even if it meant for long distances, but rising gas prices can make this less feasible.

So, it’s very dynamic, complex, and evolving. The question is, how can we monitor this and its effects on families on an ongoing basis? In any event, this work-related mobility is a real phenomenon. It’s big. It’s diverse. It has consequences. And we need to be paying attention to it.

Families, Mobility, and Work is available in an open-access format on the Memorial University Press website.

Learn more about this research project at the On the Move Partnership website.

Dr. Barb Neis (PhD) is Project Director for the On the Move Partnership.

Nathan Battams is a Knowledge Mobilization Specialist at the Vanier Institute of the Family.