Home Month and Year November 2021 Oh workers, where art thou?

Oh workers, where art thou?

Alberta business owners battle myriad of obstacles in getting employees back to work

Photo by Laura Davidson

To say the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rollercoaster ride for Leslie Echino and her staff would be an understatement.

The owner of Annabelle’s Kitchen, an institution in downtown Calgary for more than 14 years, bravely opened a second location in Marda Loop in late 2019. Yet just months later, the lockdown shut down indoor dining at both locations and forced her to trim staff to keep her business running.

Since then, like many other restaurant operators across the city, Echino has rode the uncertain waves of this pandemic along with her staff, which have ranged from more than 50 to less than five.

“The constant opening and closing, and having to lay people off, has been devastating,” she says. “It can only go on for so long, the cycle of being laid off, before some people have decided to move on into different industries, go back to school or, what I’m hearing, even just taking time off.”

The impact of this pandemic on the labour pool is being witnessed across the province – and for many business owners, creating challenges in returning to some form or normal.

In a survey conducted by Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) in early September, nearly half (41 per cent) of Alberta small business owners cite difficulty recruiting talent as a factor in returning to previous staffing levels. Two-thirds (67 per cent) point to unemployment insurance and COVID-19 support programs such as the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) as the reason why.

Other factors include a lack of available candidates with the necessary skills and experience and wage expectations that are too high.

“It’s clear there’s not one reason why our members are facing challenges recruiting and retaining staff. And yet, it’s also not surprising,” says Annie Dormuth, director of provincial affairs, Alberta for CFIB. “For example, we’ve been hearing from business owners of them having to increase their wages to attract workers. In fact, recent data shows that the average hourly wage in Alberta’s hospitality sector is $21 – way above the $15 minimum wage in the province.”

Catherine Brownlee, president and CEO of the Calgary-based recruitment firm Catherine Brownlee Inc., is also seeing employers in the city struggle to find workers throughout this pandemic. She too notes CRB as a deterrent for many workers in returning to the job, particularly in the hospitality sector.

“It’s been very difficult for places like restaurants and bars because their workers can often make more money staying at home,” she says. “It’s very polarizing. Some can’t wait to get back to work, while others never want this to end.”

Brownlee notes the answer so far hasn’t been in wage increases – “unless, of course, it’s been significantly more than CRB – but rather in, “looking for people who want to be in Alberta, that being newcomers.”

The CFIB survey seemingly confirms the limitations in wage increases being an effective recruitment tool. Only 12 per cent of Alberta small business owners reported that they felt increasing wages were useful and helping in resolving staffing issues. In addition, 17 per cent used hiring bonuses, but felt they were not helpful.

In the meantime, the consequences of the current labour shortage are leaving these small businesses owners to pick up the slack themselves. CFIB reports 56 per cent of Alberta small business owners say they are working more hours, in large part to resolve staffing issues.

“Anecdotally, we’ve been hearing a lot of this for a long time,” says Dormuth. “There’s definitely a labour shortage problem, particularly in the hospitality sector.”

Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president of Western Canada for Restaurants Canada confirms the challenges his sector is actively facing. The hospitality association, which counts 4,000 of its 30,000 members from Alberta, says their last national survey shows 80 per cent of members are still having difficulty hiring back of the house staff such as cooks, and 67 per cent are reporting difficulty hiring front-of-house staff such as servers, bartenders and hosts.

Overall, Schellwitz notes unfilled positions in Canada’s hospitality sector have increased from 60,000 pre-pandemic to 130,000 today.

In Alberta, he points to several reasons behind the lag in labour availability – notably slower-than-normal economic recovery.

“We’re still nowhere near normal operation levels. And that puts some extra insecurity as to whether someone might get the hours or not,” he says.

Schellwitz also points to labour-supply mismatch – notably that some of the unfilled positions are not where the people are – as well as a demographic shift where not as many younger workers are not choosing to enter the hospitality sector due, in part, to the pandemic.

“First, there’s a big difference right now between the urban and rural communities. A lot of these smaller communities around Alberta just don’t have access to a suitable talent pool. A lot of this was pre-existing, but the pandemic has made the situation a lot worse.

“Also, some staff are not ready to return to work. That’s been due to health concerns, as well as safety concerns associated with having to enforcing masking and now, proof of vaccinations.”

As a solution, Schellwitz says Restaurants Canada is strongly advocating for a food service stream to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that will tap into a much larger labour pool for business owners.

In addition, the association is seeking continued government support through economic aid programs such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) that will allow businesses to create improved certainty and predictability. Earlier this summer, CEWS was extended to near the end of October.

“Right now, a majority of business in our sector are still losing money, with about 80 per cent either losing money or just breaking even. So that wage subsidy helps. And many of our members are worried that if they lose that, they’ll have to shut their doors,” he says.

Calgary Hotel Association executive director Sol Zia, whose organization represents more than 80 hotels that comprise more than 90 per cent of available rooms in the city, notes the pandemic has exacerbated many of the historical labour challenges facing the travel and tourism sector, notably retention.

Yet it has also created an issue attracting new workers, particularly as it relates to entry-level positions in areas such as housekeeping, banquet, food and beverage, front desk and maintenance/operations.

“Governments have turned travel and tourism into dirty words – ‘now is not the time to travel,’ as our premier said, and without an expiry date. In turn, many young workers are not seeing travel and tourism as a career path for them,” he says.

Zia also points to additional factors that have kept workers away, including attrition as many looked to other sectors.

“Like many others, we experienced mass layoffs at the outset of the pandemic. And we have had a significant portion of that workforce not return,” he says. “Some have left the industry. Our research showed health care was the primary place where they went to.

“But also, the CRB benefit undermined the ability for entry-level workers to come back because it was ‘rich.’ And then there have been reports across the city of frontline staff taking the brunt of hostility from guests who were unhappy with the initiatives led by government. That didn’t help either.”

For Echino, the secret ingredient to getting her staff back to work has been simple.

“If you treat your employees right, it shouldn’t be that hard to get them back to work,” she says. “We did everything we could to keep staff on or get them back as soon as we could. And we tried to show them that we cared and help support them in whatever way we could.”