Restaurants hit by labour shortage as economic reopening gathers momentum

HALIFAX — George Avgeropoulos said he’s spent the last month looking for skilled workers to staff his restaurant in Toronto’s Danforth area.

"I've found people but no one knows what they're doing," the owner of Athens Restaurant said in an interview. "I put an ad out for dishwashers and people have come in who've never been in a kitchen before in their life."

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He said he’s had to rely on family and friends to help run the business while he continues the search for new employees to replace the ones lost to pandemic lockdown measures.

As public health restrictions begin to lift and provincial economies slowly reopen across Canada, the country's restaurant industry is struggling to rebuild its workforce in time for the summer.

The food and hospitality industries have been among the worst hit by the pandemic, with multiple lockdowns in some areas of the country resulting in massive employee layoffs.

And while a dwindling workforce isn’t a new challenge for the restaurant sector, industry experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that struggle.

"With COVID upon us and with so many thousands of employees laid off, we have been hearing of major issues in some areas in finding employees," said Tony Elenis, president of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, in an interview.

Elenis said workforce issues were the No. 1 obstacle facing the sector pre-pandemic and despite increases in vaccination rates and a drop in COVID cases, restaurants may still struggle.

"We anticipate that as we move to recovery and even after COVID, these workforce issues will come back and will be even more severe than what they were before," he said.

The sector was already short by roughly 60,000 people across Canada before the pandemic started, said Restaurants Canada executive Olivier Bourbeau, and after multiple lockdowns, many workers have found employment in other industries.

Martin Vezina, a spokesperson for the Association Restauration Quebec, said restaurants in that province are facing similar obstacles and the labour shortage may prove to hinder the reopening of the industry in the province as the busy summer season nears.

"That's what we are afraid of," said Vezina, "that we (do not) ... have the capacity to welcome all the demand from the customers."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of service industry workers have left the business for good.

After witnessing the workforce of the Drake Hotel Properties plummet during the first lockdown of the pandemic in March 2020, Matt Fairbanks began to consider a pivot away from his bartending job at the Drake Commissary in Toronto.

"Seeing the company go from 500 (employees) to 25 was a little frightening," Fairbanks said, in an interview.

He made that pivot back in November and now works for 7shifts — a tech company specializing in scheduling software for restaurants — and earns significantly more than the $14 an hour he was paid while he worked at the Commissary, he said.

"It's life changing," he said. "My partner and I are planning on buying a house soon and I don't think that was really possible without making this shift," adding that he doesn’t plan on returning to the restaurant sector.

Avgeropoulos said prospective employees are looking for much higher wages than he offered before the pandemic. "We're paying dishwashers $15, $14 an hour now they want $35," he said.

He did not disclose the wages he was offering to wait staff and line cooks but did say it was based on performance.

Elenis speculated that continued government aid may be a contributing factor to the lack of available workers, adding that some former restaurant staff might be forgoing work in lieu of employment insurance.

Both Vezina and Elenis said one possible solution to the dearth of workers is the loosening of temporary foreign worker rules to give restaurants the chance to bulk up their staffing numbers.

Other solutions come with more financial government support, said Bourbeau, which is why Restaurants Canada has been advocating to have the federal emergency wage subsidy — which allowed businesses to hire back laid off workers — extended past the September end date.

"It will take an average restaurant an average 12 months just to get back to profitability," he said. "We are only struggling, we are surviving, so we need a little bit of support, just so that we can what we call ‘pass from survival to revival’."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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