Restaurants struggle to rehire as workers seek new careers, Ottawa extends COVID-19 benefits

Hospitality industry woes persist even as reopenings take place

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Restaurants across Canada are struggling to rehire servers and cooks as COVID-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, with many owners adjusting reopening plans or working reduced hours to eke out a profit.

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The labour crunch is being blamed on several factors, chiefly a recent trend among food service workers to rethink their career paths and extended COVID-19 benefits for the unemployed. The shortage comes as job vacancies across Canada have reached their highest levels in decades, particularly in the sectors of health care, restaurants, tourism and retail, that economists warn could in turn crimp the country’s post-pandemic recovery.

The Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been urged by business groups to terminate COVID-19 benefits, namely the $1,200-per-month Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), that have reportedly disincentivized some people to return to work.

Ottawa earlier this month extended the CRB (formerly the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB) until Sept. 25, ending just after what is widely expected to be a federal election period. The Liberals had earlier agreed to trim the CRB from $2,000 a month, but labour shortages have persisted as many people opt for new career choices or delay a return to work due to savings they’ve accumulated over the pandemic.

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Donna Timmons, owner of the Rusty Anchor Restaurant on the northern edge of Cape Breton Island, N.S., said worker shortages are a persistent issue plaguing “probably 99 per cent” of companies in the region.

Timmons has been forced to perform a greater portion of daily duties at her establishment due to the hiring crunch, an issue she says is largely attributable to Ottawa’s benefit packages.

“A lot of people that were working here decided that they’d rather be on CERB and they just didn’t come to work,” she said.

The problem is visible across Canada, most starkly in tourist-dependent regions in which owners are struggling to capitalize on the crucial summer season that contributes the majority of their revenues.

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“We’ve been really short staffed,” said Lucas Johnson, owner of Coyotes Southwestern Grill in Banff, Alta.

Johnson, who purchased the business with his wife, Kathy, just months before the pandemic struck, has been operating Coyotes with a staff of 26, down from their typical workforce of around 35.

He has been logging long hours to make up the shortfall, and has had to run the kitchen at a reduced staff of two morning cooks and two evening cooks.

“I start my days at 5 a.m., and there’s just not enough hours in the day,” he said.

Desperate for more kitchen staff, Johnson is now looking to hire a cook — a former colleague of his who now sells security systems — for just one day a week to fill the gap. He said a decision by Ottawa to cut the CRB would only be marginally supportive for his company in particular, but said many other businesses in the Banff region see the program as their main impediment to restaffing.

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I start my days at 5 a.m., and there’s just not enough hours in the day

Restaurant owner Lucas Johnson

Hiring struggles among restaurant owners comes at a period of exceptionally high job vacancies in Canada. Employers across the country were looking to recruit workers for 671,000 positions in May, the most recent month in Statistics Canada data.

Food services made up the second-largest portion of vacant positions at 78,000, behind only the healthcare sector at 107,000 open positions. Retailers had the third-highest vacancies at more than 73,000.

The pinch is felt by restaurant owners across the country, particularly as many servers or cooks remain hesitant to return to work amid COVID-19. Many business owners say the issue is due to a decision by employees to try new lines of work, while by far the next-highest concern is the federal government’s continued support programs for the unemployed.

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“This is something that we’ve heard universally among owners across the country,” said James Rilett, vice-president of Restaurants Canada, a lobby group.

Further complicating the issue, Rilett said, is uncertainty around whether the hospitality industry will remain open after the summer. Consumer-facing businesses like hotels, retail stores and restaurants have so far suffered the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Some people might be willing to leave the new jobs and come back to the industry, but it’s still not certain that we’ll be open in the fall if there’s a fourth wave.”

Other business owners said they have luckily managed to retain staff despite pandemic restrictions. Melody Dauphney, owner of The Clucking Hen Café in Cape Breton, said nearly all her original workforce of about 12 have returned to work since restrictions were eased in Nova Scotia earlier this summer.

Many, she says, are already looking ahead and assuming that federal supports could be cut off in the near future.

“They know that government funding is going to end at some point, and then what?”

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Theresa D. Begay

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