Rocky Mountain hotels, restaurants doubt help will arrive in time for summer tourist season
Recent changes ease hiring restrictions, allow more temporary foreign workers
Steven Calderon says he doesn't mind working nearly 75 hours per week. He has two restaurant jobs in Banff and some of those hours include covering jobs that aren't filled — or taking over from co-workers who are exhausted and need a break.
"I like it, so it's all good," said Calderon, 30, while taking a break from chopping onions.
He obtained a working holiday permit and arrived in Canada from Costa Rica last fall. He's helping to fill what people in the Rocky Mountain town are calling a labour drought — and a crisis.
Hundreds if not a few thousand jobs in Banff, Lake Louise and Canmore are unfilled.
Hotel operators, restaurant owners, labour experts and job recruiters are welcoming changes to the federal government's Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) that were announced last month. However, they say it's unlikely they'll see any benefit this year — and because of processing delays, they fear help won't arrive until 2024.
"It doesn't provide any immediate solutions," said Stephane Prevost, the chef and co-owner of two restaurants in Banff, Block Kitchen and Bar and Shoku Izakaya.
"We are in a crisis situation," he said.
Prevost, who hired Calderon last year, says wages have already been boosted, but the industry is desperately looking to fill jobs ahead of a possible surge of summer visitors.
Last summer, he had to close one or two days a week because he didn't have enough employees.
"There was simply not enough staff, and burned-out staff … it was difficult to meet the demand."
Walk down Banff Avenue and you'll see almost every business has a sign in their window looking for help.
The TFWP changes allow sectors experiencing labour shortages — including hospitality and food services — to hire more employees from abroad, and in some cases those employees can stay longer. The province, which works alongside the federal government on labour and immigration matters, lifted restrictions this month to allow employers better access to international workers.
Prevost says the changes will allow him to hire up to 30 per cent of his staff under the TFWP, but he says the process is time-consuming and costly, and applications are facing processing delays.
He has already reduced operating hours and has increased prices to cover extra labour costs.
"For an experienced cook position, [the wage] has gone up to $19 plus [per hour.]. There's a lot of places that started to offer $20 an hour or more," he said.
That's an increase of $2 to $3 an hour over the past couple of years. The minimum wage in Alberta is $15 per hour.
"We have to increase prices in order to be able to make all of this work," he said.
'It's a real challenge'
The Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association is hopeful the revamped TFWP will help, but it's calling for more changes.
"I would say that the temporary part of foreign workers needs to be removed. We need access to the world workforce and we need to have the ability to get through it in a quicker timeframe with less costs," said Trevor Long, the president of the association and the general manager of the 333-room Rimrock Resort Hotel.
"How long it takes, even if it's going to be available for us in 2023, are some of the unknowns and concerns that we have. It's a real challenge," said Long.
Long says his team submitted applications for four workers under the TFWP in January 2021 — they've been told the wait will extend into next spring.
"There needs to be a real hard look and change on the way we get access to workers in Canada," he said.
Long, who has worked at the resort for nearly three decades, says some operators are offering bonuses and other incentives to lure people to Banff and Lake Louise, but it's difficult to attract domestic workers.
He says the industry group Tourism HR Canada is predicting the labour shortage will continue until 2028.
Hundreds, thousands of jobs
The director of the Banff and Canmore Job Resource Centre wonders where all of the applicants have gone.
The centre, located just off Banff Avenue, was empty during a recent visit. The job board, however, was filled with postings for general labour, trades, office administration, hospitality, food and beverage, health care and sales.
"We've gone from what we call a staff shortage for many, many years and now what we're calling a staff drought," said Michel Dufresne.
Dufresne says traditionally deep reserves of workers from the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario would venture west for work. They would be joined by workers from Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan and 30 other eligible countries who have come in the past under International Experience Canada's working holiday program.
But he says they are not coming in the same numbers seen before.
"We don't know if it's because there's a backlog in immigration or it's because those people are not prepared to travel yet. But they're not here, that's all we know," he said.
Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, employers recruit individuals to work exclusively for them for a set period of time. Under the working holiday program, employees are free to work for anyone they choose and can stay for up to two years — there's also a clearer path to permanent residency.
Dufresne says there are approximately 250 postings at the centre right now, with some employers looking to fill multiple positions. He says the number of unfilled positions could actually be a couple thousand.
Fewer foreign workers, higher domestic wages?
Statistics Canada estimates the number of job vacancies in Alberta reached 88,350 in February, the most recent month that statistics are available.
An expert on immigration and refugee policy in Canada agrees the changes announced by the federal government will do little to help employers this year.
Robert Falconer is a research associate at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy. He says employers appear to have reached a limit on how much they're willing to pay for those unfilled positions and some are hoping foreign workers can fill the gap.
"When employers say they're struggling to find domestic workers, what they're genuinely saying is they're struggling to find domestic workers at a price point that is profitable for them," he said.
"We have to wonder, could they perhaps raise wages for domestic workers?"
Falconer says it's not his intention to slam employers. He says the TFWP is a benefit for people who come to Canada, many of whom return a portion of their earnings to help improve the lives of their families back home.
He says it's also worth pondering that if fewer foreign workers are allowed to enter the country, would domestic workers see an increase in wages for those same positions? Or conversely, now that quotas on foreign workers have increased, will wages remain low for Canadians?
Based on recent job postings, the centre says wages for hospitality, tourism and restaurant wages have increased anywhere from 60 cents to $2.73 per hour for jobs in the food and beverage, hotel guest services and travel and tourism sectors.
And the industry still wonders where the applicants have gone.
A 'delicate dance'
The executive director of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association calls it a "delicate dance" that will play out this summer as operators scramble to meet customer demand and service expectations.
"It's this delicate dance of trying to cobble together people that can work extra shifts, people that work on the supervisory, management front lines," said Darren Reeder.
Reeder says foreign workers who were here had to leave during the pandemic and have not returned. He also says the industry hasn't done a good enough job promoting the industry as a viable career choice rather than short-term, seasonal work.
Another hurdle, he says, is competing with an oil and gas sector that is "on fire" and has drawn people to service sector jobs elsewhere in Alberta.
"It destabilizes overall tourism employment in our sector," said Reeder.
He would like to see a specific hospitality and tourism program to attract foreign workers who would be given a clear path to permanent residency.
"Let's make sure that we build a program that is responsive to the needs of the regions by season and by occupation, so we can get this industry back up and contributing to the Canadian economy."
Back at Shoku Izakaya, Calderon says his next goal is to get another work permit, which could lead to a permanent stay.
"So yeah, that's good. Permanent residency and maybe stay here for a little bit longer," he said.
It's what his employers are hoping for as well.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.