Restaurants across Canada face labour shortages as growing number of hospitality workers leave industry

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Restaurants across the country are grappling with a labor problem as they try to reopen: Many of their former employees don’t want their old jobs back.

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Thousands of hospitality workers stranded at home during the pandemic lockdown have decided to change careers or start their own businesses, leaving behind a restaurant life, many say, always due to low wages, difficult working conditions and long hours. have suffered from the lack of- duration stability.

For restaurants, this is making economic recovery more challenging. “This is definitely the No. 1 issue for us,” said Olivier Bourbeau of the national industry group Restaurants Canada.

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Employment in food services and housing climbed to a pandemic-era high of more than a million people this summer, according to Statistics Canada’s Monthly Labor Survey. But that’s still 150,000 less than it was before the pandemic, and most of the gap can be explained by the record number of vacant jobs: 129,000 in June, the most recent month for which data is available.

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Several public-health regulations brought in to fight the pandemic have made hospitality jobs more difficult, forcing some to leave the industry.

For a decade, Charlotte Big Canoe had pursued two careers: during the day she worked in education, as a preschool teacher or museum guide, and by night she was a bartender in downtown Toronto.

When friends asked about the stress and time constraints of keeping two jobs, “My answer was always: I really enjoy doing both and don’t have to choose right now, so I’m not going to choose.” I am,” said Ms. Big Canoe.

The pandemic changed that. When she returned to the restaurant after the first wave of lockdown, she found that the workplace had changed – in a way she didn’t like. The easy conversations she had with customers — part of the job, she said, that really made it feel worthwhile — were replaced with police rules like table sizes and the occasional stare at patrons who didn’t wear masks.

So, for the first time in her life, Ms. Big Canoe said, she threw herself into looking for a full-time position, eventually taking a job at the Girl Guides of Canada. “There’s definitely a heart of nostalgia, but I don’t know if I’ll ever fully go back,” she said.

Despite the demand for their services, the wages of hospitality workers have barely risen in the past 18 months. The median hourly wage for the sector is about $18 an hour, according to an analysis of statistics from Statistics Canada by Mikael Skuterud, a labor economist at the University of Waterloo, that was before the pandemic.

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Pro. Schuterud said the high level of uncertainty for businesses right now – whether there could be more lockdowns, for example – means that restaurant owners appear slow to increase compensation.

“The problem with wage increases is that they are very sticky,” he said. “It’s easy to grow them, but it’s very hard to reduce them.”

Mr Bourbeau says that, in the best of times, restaurants operate on low profit margins – perhaps 5 per cent – and are doing so at reduced capacity in most jurisdictions right now, most with no money to raise wages.

For many workers who chose not to return, the decision was about pursuing new sectors that would make them less vulnerable to an economic downturn.

Luke Bergman was working as a barista in Canmore, Alta., when the pandemic hit. In the early months she worked a few hours a week delivering bags of coffee – but spent most of the time at home collecting the $2,000 a month Canada Emergency Response Benefit. As the pandemic progressed, she began to worry that her experience in the services industry was not giving her the skills to survive in tough economic times.

So he decided to learn coding. In early 2021, he moved to Nelson, BC, enrolled in online web-development courses at Lighthouse Labs and most recently got a job with a Saskatchewan startup building a land-management app.

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Mr. Bergman said that, given the nature of Canada’s growing technology sector and the rise of remote working, he feels there are a lot more doors open for him now. “It felt really liberating, you know.”

For others leaving the hospitality industry, it was about a change in lifestyle. With long, unpredictable hours and a feeling among employees that they could lose their jobs at any time, restaurants can be notoriously high-stress work environments.

Not 9 to 5, a group advocating for more mental health care in the food industry this summer conducted a survey of 673 hospitality professionals and found that half of respondents strongly felt they were experiencing symptoms of burnout or depression. Were. The research was funded by the federal Future Skills Center.

Kiran Singh, who worked in kitchens in Ireland and Toronto for more than a decade, said that for as long as he could remember, he had dreamed of working with food, but the working environment of a restaurant was one of those things. But the pandemic had provided the push to try something different.

In late 2020, he and two of his friends launched a range of seasoning and meal-preparation products called Cook with Zing, which are currently sold online and at independent retailers in Ontario.

Mr. Singh himself produces and packages the items in a restaurant’s kitchen during the day – before opening for evening service.

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He said the company now earns enough to support him full-time and running a small business is less stressful for him than it was before.

“I still cook and everything, so I am completely happy,” said Mr. Singh. “But the restaurant kitchen — I mean, everyone knows it, it’s a very stressful job. Both physically and mentally. So moving to something else… It was really great.”

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