Low wages and instability to blame for labor shortage in restaurant industry, workers say

As restaurant owners across the country scramble to fill thousands of jobs, a common refrain has emerged: if the government doesn’t pay workers to stay home, the labor shortage that will plaguing the restaurant industry would not exist.

But workers tell a different story, pointing to low wages and grueling working conditions as the main barriers to hiring.

“It’s hot. It’s stressful. The hours are long and the pay is terrible,” said Chantelle Comeau, a 25-year veteran in the restaurant industry.

“People are literally working to the point of exhaustion for pennies above minimum wage.”

The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on restaurants in Canada. The industry has suffered some of the longest shutdowns in the world, with more than 10,000 restaurants closing permanently.

It was also devastating for workers. Hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers have lost their jobs and some are not coming back.

While some restaurateurs are struggling to find enough workers to fill shifts, some suggest government income support is deterring some from working.

Sydney restaurant owner Danny Ellis considered temporarily closing one of his restaurants to give staff a break. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

“We lost a lot of untrained, low-wage workers,” said Danny Ellis, owner and operator of four restaurants in Cape Breton, an area where the unemployment rate is 12.6%, down from 8.7%. for Nova Scotia. a set.

“I can’t find a dishwasher,” he said. “Especially for guys in this position, why would they come back when they’re being paid to sit at home?”

The restaurateur says he has raised his wages, but still can’t find enough workers. He now plans to close one of his restaurants one day a week just to give current staff a break.

“I’ve been selling food and alcohol in Sydney for about 42 years now,” Ellis said. “This is the worst labor shortage I have ever encountered.”

Intense competition for staff

Economists say several factors are contributing to the labor shortage in restaurants.

They say the massive hiring spree as the economy reopened has created intense competition for staff. The situation is exacerbated by restaurant workers changing fields, ongoing COVID-19 concerns, dwindling numbers of foreign workers, and difficulties finding child care or summer camps.

“It’s going to be pretty tough to rehire a quarter of a million people all at once,” said David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

Referring to recent statistics, he says wages in the catering industry have remained relatively stable, while the workload in terms of improved cleaning and health and safety measures has increased.

David Macdonald is Senior Economist at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. (Laura McQuillan/CBC)

Changing public health recommendations and an impending fourth wave of COVID-19 are also preventing most restaurateurs from guaranteeing hours, especially this fall, Macdonald says.

He says the solution to finding more workers is often to raise wages.

“The condition of any complaint about a labor shortage is that there is a shortage – at the wage I am willing to pay,” Macdonald said. “It’s the piece that’s always missing.”

Macdonald said employers “are asking people to potentially give up government support to work in a job that may be part-time, and even those hours aren’t assured. It’s not very compelling.”

“Instability is terrifying”

It’s this instability that has caused some people to leave the restaurant industry altogether, says Scott Marleau, a Toronto-area bartender.

“We’ve seen closures in the wazoo,” he said. “Instability is terrifying.”

Economists say several factors are contributing to the labor shortage in restaurants. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The 32-year-old bartender, who started working in a bar more than a decade ago, says he has taken odd jobs in construction and film production to get by during the pandemic and is resuming his position as head bartender of a hotel next week.

But Marleau says the repeated lockdowns have prompted some people to give up and seek employment in another field permanently.

Comeau says that after being laid off from a full-service restaurant, she tried working for a call center before eventually returning to food service.

A group of people are seen at a restaurant in Vancouver in July. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

She interviewed for a few jobs, including at Tim Hortons, where she had worked as a teenager.

The coffee and donut chain promised “competitive wages” that ended up being minimum wage, she says.

“I would have taken home less than 20 years ago because people don’t tip anymore,” she says. “I used to go out with $40 a day in tips, but everyone pays electronically, so there’s no change in tipping.”

Comeau ended up getting a job at a Halifax-area boutique hotel as a line cook for $14.50 an hour.

“It’s really horrible pay for the amount of work I do and the 12-hour days I work,” she said. “If anyone is wondering why there is a labor shortage, they need only look at the paychecks of restaurant workers.”


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Cecil N. Messick