Ian Kersley had a young family and a mortgage in 1982 when the threat of layoffs loomed at the Algoma Steel plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
He says if it wasn't for a work-sharing agreement, his lack of seniority would have almost certainly led to him being handed a pink slip and leaving the Sault for good.
"In '82 we did this, and in '82 I had a year in the plant, I had two young kids and a mortgage and I went on work sharing then, and I know for sure if I'd have been laid off then I'd have been heading back from whence I came," Kersley said.
Instead, a government program that allows employees to cut their hours to avoid layoffs - while taking only a minimal pay cut - allowed Kersley to keep his job and climb the ranks of his union to become president of United Steelworkers Local 2724 today.
Under the work-sharing program, employees work four days a week while collecting employment insurance on the fifth day.
With the Canadian unemployment rate expected to rise to nearly nine percent this year - from 7.2 percent now - and the economy predicted to shed 350,000 jobs, work sharing is an option for those seeking to cut costs while avoiding major layoffs.
Over the years, many Canadian companies have taken advantage of the federal EI job-sharing plan, though it has been little publicized since it was introduced more than 25 years ago during the early 1980s recession.
At that time, the jobless rate hit 13 percent after a massive streamlining in the auto, steel and industrial sectors caused by high inflation and the second global oil-price shock.
One of the latest companies to use the work-sharing program is integrated steelmaker Essar Steel, which has started the plan at the former Algoma Steel operation in Northern Ontario, a region hard hit by steel layoffs over the years.
The members of Kersley's local recently agreed to a 26-week work-sharing agreement at the Essar Steel Algoma plant, where Kersley said he hopes the plan will keep young workers in the Sault just as it kept him there more than a quarter-century ago.
"Especially up in the Sault, in Northern Ontario here, it's very, very hard to attract young technical professional people to the steel plant ... so when we get people here it's nice to keep them here."
Kersley's 600-member local narrowly approved the job-sharing deal, with 54 percent voting for it and 46 percent voting against.
He said most of the votes against came from senior union members who knew their jobs were relatively secure and didn't want to take a pay cut.
Under the deal, employees receive $89 in employment insurance on their one day off a week, which works out to a pay cut of approximately 12 percent, Kersley said.
Frank Reid, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, said that while some workers simply can't afford to take that kind of pay cut, the benefits of work sharing are undeniable.
"If you think about the tradeoff, that you're working four days a week, getting half your pay on the fifth day from EI so that you end up with something like 90 percent of your normal pay and you get one extra day off per week, like a long weekend every week, that's something that would sound appealing to many workers," Reid said.
More experienced workers tend to see work sharing as an affront to the hallowed principle of seniority, but Reid said the program can benefit everyone.
"To say, 'Well, we want to enforce seniority so the junior workers suffer and the senior workers keep their jobs,' when you compare that to the alternative and say, everyone can actually benefit and perhaps be better off, why would you insist on making some junior members suffer?" Reid asked.
He added that work sharing is "shockingly well-hidden," given that studies have shown productivity is higher under the program than it is after layoffs.
With work sharing, workers don't have to be retrained to do new jobs, and it eliminates the toxic work environment that can result from workforce reductions.
Although layoffs can save costs in ways work sharing can't - under most work-sharing agreements, employees still receive full benefits, for example - Reid said the increased productivity associated with work sharing, as well as the savings when the company decides to ramp up production again and doesn't have to hire and train new employees, actually tends to save businesses money in the long run.
In its most recent budget, the federal government extended the length of time employers can use work-sharing agreements by 14 weeks to a maximum of one year.
Members of another United Steelworkers local in Sault Ste. Marie recently voted down a work-sharing proposal.
Local 9548, representing 470 workers at the Tenaris Algoma Tubes plant, unofficially voted two-to-one against the idea just prior to a two-week shutdown at the operation in February. The company has since said it will indefinitely lay off 130 of the plant's workers.
Other companies have unofficially instituted work-sharing programs.
In January, Rogers Publishing, which owns some of Canada's most popular magazines, including Maclean's and Chatelaine, gave its employees the option of working four days a week instead of five for a 20-percent pay cut.
In the United States, several states have work-sharing programs and major companies including Japanese carmaker Toyota have used the programs to keep skilled workers and cut costs in a tough business environment.