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‘I still remember the day I told my staff not to panic’: Oshawa’s Human Resources director

With each wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oshawa’s Executive Director of Human Resources goes through a wave of emotions.

“Laying off people, bringing them back as soon as things re-opened. They would shut down again and we’d lay them off again. Really emotional and stressful stuff to have to deal with,” said Visha Sukdeo, who leads a team of 17 people that handle hiring, firing, compensation and workplace issues for employees of the City.

With approximately 1,250 employees at the City of Oshawa, the Human Resources department has no trouble staying busy, according to Sukdeo.

“There’s not really an average day at the office for me,” she said.

Some of her responsibilities for the week of Oct. 24, (when she met with The Chronicle) included taking part in a full day meeting to discuss the City’s budget for the coming year. The day before, Sukdeo presented a strategic workforce plan at an Oshawa City Council meeting.

While the day-to-day functions for Human Resources have always differed, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create an onslaught of new issues for the department.

“For the last year-and-a-half human resources has been on the forefront of deciding how we can protect our staff best,” said Sukdeo.

The first hint at the drastic changes the pandemic would bring came with the initial closing of recreational facilities in the City of Oshawa on March 13, 2020. It was a closure that was only supposed to last three weeks.

“I still remember the day when I told my staff in my regular Friday email in the morning not to panic,” said Sukdeo, “and by the end of the day we were all panicking because we were shutting down all of our recreation facilities. I was sitting in an emergency City Council meeting, the first one I’ve ever been to, making the decision.”

This closure shut down all community centres, arenas and arts resource centres. It also cancelled recreational programs like public swimming, public skating and facility rentals and resulted in hundreds of temporary layoffs.

These changes were planned to last until early April 2020. Now more than a year later, after multiple re-openings and closures, recreational facilities function at a lower capacity and adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols.

The uncertainty regarding lockdowns and re-opening plans was tough for her department, according to Sukdeo.

City functions were “up in the air” at the beginning, according to Sukdeo, who worked 20 days in a row at the beginning of the pandemic.

There was a debate on masks for City employees before the province made it mandatory. New policies including social-distancing regulations, meeting functions and capacity limits were introduced and reworked multiple times, she said.

While lockdowns are no longer a big topic of concern for Human Resources as workplaces continue to adapt to in-person, COVID-19 safe functions, vaccine concerns continue to be an issue for the department, said Sukdeo.

According to Abacus Data chair Bruce Anderson, roughly seven per cent (two million) of Canada’s adult population is vaccine hesitant and six per cent (1.77 million) refuse to get the vaccine at all. With many workplaces making vaccines mandatory for employees, much of the pressure to sort out vaccine issues falls on Human Resource departments.

The City of Oshawa’s vaccine plan for employees is influenced by what other municipalities in the area put in place, according to Sukdeo. The City wants to avoid firing employees over vaccine mandates, but Sukdeo said they’re “still deciding” what consequences will be for unvaccinated City employees.