HALIFAX — As restaurateurs across the country scramble to fill thousands of jobs, a common refrain has emerged: If the government wasn’t paying workers to stay home, the labour shortage plaguing the restaurant industry wouldn’t exist.
But workers are telling a different story, pointing to low wages and gruelling work conditions as the biggest hiring obstacles.
“It’s hot. It’s stressful. The hours are long and the pay is awful,” says Chantelle Comeau, a 25-year veteran of the restaurant industry.
“People are literally working to the point of burnout for pennies above minimum wage.”
The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on restaurants in Canada.
The industry has endured some of the longest shutdowns in the world, with more than 10,000 eateries closing permanently.
It’s also been devastating for workers. Hundreds of thousands of food service employees lost their jobs — and some are not returning.
As some restaurateurs struggle to find enough workers to fill shifts, some suggest government income supports are deterring some from working.
“We lost a lot of the untrained, lower wage workers,” says Danny Ellis, the owner and operator of four restaurants in Cape Breton, a region with an unemployment rate of 12.6 per cent, compared to 8.7 per cent for Nova Scotia as a whole.
“I can’t find dishwashers,” he says. “Especially for guys in that position, why would they come back when they’re paid to sit at home?”
The restaurateur says he’s increased wages, but still can’t find enough workers. He’s now planning to close one of his restaurants for a day a week just to give current staff a break.
“I’ve been slinging food and booze in Sydney for about 42 years now,” Ellis says. “This is the worst labour shortage I’ve ever encountered.”
Economists say there are multiple factors contributing to the restaurant labour crunch.
They say the mass hiring spree as the economy reopens has created intense competition for staff. The situation is exacerbated by restaurant workers changing fields, ongoing COVID-19 concerns, fewer foreign workers and issues finding child care or summer camps.
“It’s going to be pretty difficult to rehire a quarter of a million people all at once,” says David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Pointing to recent statistics, he says wages in the restaurant industry have remained relatively flat, while the workload in terms of enhanced cleaning and health and safety measures has increased.
Evolving public health recommendations and a looming fourth wave also make it impossible for most restaurant operators to guarantee hours, especially come this fall, Macdonald says.
He says the solution to finding more workers is often increasing wages.
“The proviso to any complaint about a labour shortage is there’s a shortage — at the wage I’m willing to pay,” Macdonald says. “That's the piece that's always missing.”
“They’re asking people to potentially go off government support to take on a job that's maybe part time, and even those hours aren't assured,” he said. “It’s not terribly compelling.”
It's that instability that has pushed some people to leave the restaurant industry altogether, Toronto-area bartender Scott Marleau says.
"We've seen closures out the wazoo," he says. "The instability is terrifying."
The 32-year-old bartender, who started as a barback more than a decade ago, says he worked odd jobs in construction and film production to get by during the pandemic and is returning to his position as the head bartender of a hotel next week.
But Marleau says repeated lockdowns prompted some people to call it quits and seek a job in another field permanently.
Comeau says when she was let go from a full-service restaurant, she tried working for a call centre before eventually returning to food service.
She interviewed for a few jobs, including at Tim Hortons where she had worked in her teens.
The coffee and doughnut chain promised “competitive wages” that ended up being minimum wage, she says.
“I would have taken home less than I did 20 years ago because people don’t tip anymore,” she says. “I used to walk out with $40 a day in tips but everyone pays electronically so there’s no change to leave a tip.”
Comeau ended up getting a job a Halifax-area boutique hotel as a line cook for $14.50 an hour.
“It’s really pretty awful pay for the amount of work I do, and the 12-hour days I put in,” she says. “If anyone is wondering why there’s a labour shortage, they just need to look at the paycheques of restaurant workers.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2021.
Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press