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The hidden impacts of Whistler’s remote-work movement

While difficult to quantify remote workers’ impact on employee beds, the anecdotes paint a clear picture
Eoin Daniel works for an Ireland-based software company from his home office in Whistler.

Alex had only been working his entry-level job at a luxury Whistler hotel for a year when, in August 2020, he found himself permanently laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

(Pique agreed to withhold Alex’s full name, in order to allow him to speak freely about his previous employment and current living situations.)

In B.C. on a three-year post-graduate work permit, Alex left staff housing and started applying for new jobs, all while wrestling with whether to return to his home country in Europe or stay in Canada. The choice became clear when he was offered remote work as a data analyst for a Toronto-based company. Though the corporation’s office is now reopening, Alex’s employer is allowing him to continue working remotely from Whistler permanently. 

Aside from the stability offered by a job that’s largely immune to the effects of constantly shifting pandemic restrictions, increased financial security proved to be another benefit of Alex’s new gig. He now earns “more than double” what he made in a management trainee role at the hotel, he said. 

Fortunately, Alex managed to find new accommodation in Whistler almost as easily as he found his new job: a private room in a house owned by a Vancouver couple. 

“At the beginning, I was living there with four other people—it’s a huge house, so it’s five rooms in there, and [the homeowners] rented their rooms to just pay, basically, for their mortgage,” he explained. 

But when three of his housemates left, the landlords took the opportunity to move in full-time. “They were also not required to work anymore in Vancouver, so they decided to come to Whistler and work from here, and just converted two of the rooms into offices,” Alex said.

Alex’s experience paints a picture of some of the many changes Whistler’s community has undergone over the last 19 months. It’s reasonable to assume most long-term locals can, at this point, name at least a handful of fellow Whistlerites who’ve either transitioned from hospitality to online work (or trades), or who took advantage of the pandemic-sparked freedom to work from anywhere and relocated to the resort from other cities, provinces or countries.

Statistics Canada found nearly 40 per cent of Canadian employees worked from home during the last full week of March 2020, compared to 13 per cent of employees who reported working any scheduled hours from home in 2018. 

In a poll on Pique’s website that asked remote workers whether they moved to Whistler during the pandemic, 5.9 per cent of the 134 respondents who identified as locals said yes, with offices closed they decided to find a place to rent in the resort, while 5.2 per cent of respondents said they bought and moved into a local property. Almost 12 per cent of respondents reported moving into their existing vacation home full-time. Only a single respondent reported moving to Whistler during the pandemic to work for a local business, while 69.4 per cent of respondents said they lived in Whistler prior to COVID-19 and 6.7 per cent reported leaving Whistler during the pandemic.

Eoin Daniel is one of those locals who managed to hold on to remote work as he found his way back to Whistler. He previously worked for venues like Maxx Fish nightclub and the GLC during a working holiday stint from 2015 to 2017, before returning home to Ireland with his Whistler-raised girlfriend in tow when that visa ended. 

His subsequent routine of working in an office Monday to Friday as an executive for Irish recruitment software company Occupop was interrupted when the pandemic struck. His partner returned home to her family in Whistler amid the initial chaos, while Daniel followed in February of this year, once his spousal visa was approved. 

“I was very, very fortunate that … when I approached [the company] saying, ‘Look, my visa’s been approved, I’m moving over to Canada,’ they extended the opportunity to continue to work for them from here,” said Daniel. Now, he fulfills his responsibilities from the two-bedroom suite in Emerald he shares with his girlfriend and their housemate. 

“All I need is my laptop and my headset,” he added. “Working in sales, I’m just making phone calls all day. I’m quite lucky in where I am, that I can go outside—I’m living by Green Lake, so I can go for a walk, get some air on my lunch or just look out at the mountains … Working from home hasn’t really been a labouring process.” 

For Whistler local Amber Layton, the pandemic and resulting influx of remote workers like Daniel provided an opportunity to change up the type of tenants she typically welcomes into her Creekside rental property.

Layton and her partner furnished the two-bedroom apartment with bunk beds and have been renting it to four-person groups since moving out of the unit six years ago, “because we directly know how hard it is to rent in Whistler,” she said. 

But as a result of that decision, Layton said they’ve been “burned many times,” by damage resulting from negligent tenants. So, when her last round of seasonal workers moved out during the pandemic, Layton swapped out the bunk beds for desks and rented the unit to two newly arrived remote workers from Toronto. 

While Layton admits, “it’s not good for the local workers,” the difference, she said, is “night and day.” 

“They contact us the minute there’s an issue and we’re so grateful.” 

Prior to the pandemic, Layton also rented out another room in her home, but when those tenants moved out during the pandemic, decided to leave it unoccupied. With her immune-compromised partner working from home, she said the risk of a housemate bringing the virus into their home was too great. 

“But there’s another room that’s gone because of the pandemic,” she said. 

“From my perspective … housing is just getting more and more difficult [to find]. There wasn’t Airbnb 10 years ago; we weren’t all remote working. So I get that it’s getting even more squeezed and more pressured.

“I don’t have the solution,” she continued, but, “I can’t take the risk [of renting to seasonal workers] anymore because we have been burned too much with the damages that have been done.”

Without concrete data (market rental vacancy rates aren’t historically tracked in Whistler), it’s difficult to quantify how many beds previously filled by local employees have been lost since the beginning of the pandemic, or how many remote workers now call the resort home. 

However, Whistler employers are still struggling to bear the brunt of a debilitating staff shortage, while the lack of affordable rental listings on sites like Craigslist, or local housing Facebook groups, point toward an accommodation crunch as dire as ever.

An Oct. 2020 labour survey from the Whistler Chamber of Commerce found about 35 per cent of Whistler’s workforce is typically made up of working holiday permit holders. The survey results also showed the number of Canadian citizens and permanent residents in Whistler’s workforce rose to 55 per cent in 2020—representing a 22-per-cent rise from 2017/18 levels. 

When it comes to Whistler’s labour crunch, Daniel mused whether local employers could try to fill part-time roles with remote workers looking for extra income or more social connections, while more co-working spaces could be a good way for newcomers to bust out of the work-from-home rut and make new friends within the community. 

But with the work-from-home trend sticking around for the time being, the question remains: when more typical numbers of foreign workers eventually return to Whistler, where will they live? 

“The remote jobs will definitely take away some of the housing spaces, I believe,” said Alex. 

“If you just take our house as an example—even if I was looking for my next place, I would need to look for a place with an extra room for an office. That definitely will reduce housing, if nothing new gets built. And as more and more people come to Whistler who can work remotely, who previously lived in Toronto or Vancouver and just came to Whistler on the weekends … they are now the people who will live here permanently, which also makes it difficult, of course, for all the local businesses to find [staff,] because they can’t find accommodation for them.” 

Alex said he foresees a time in the not-too-distant future where local businesses will need to either build their own staff-housing complexes, or establish shuttles between Squamish, Pemberton and Whistler. 

“I think that’s the only feasible solution,” he said.