Alberta restaurants scrambling to find employees as province reopens

Restaurants in Alberta have opened their doors to patrons but are struggling to find the staff to serve them.

'Everybody is in the same boat,' says bar owner

The Rocky Mountain Ice House is seeking more staff as it prepares for more event nights. Stage 3 of reopening in Alberta will largely do away with public health restrictions. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Restaurants in Alberta have opened their doors to patrons but are struggling to find the staff to serve them.

During the pandemic, Rocky Mountain Ice House in downtown Edmonton adapted to restrictions by building new front and back patios. General manager Flint Palmer says the biggest issue now facing the restaurant is getting enough staff.

"My inbox is always full of resumes, but they're just not here right now," he said.

It's the same story at The Blues Can bar in Calgary. After having to fundraise earlier this year to keep from shutting down, owner Greg Smith is keen to host live music shows again but needs more employees.

"We're getting days with nothing — absolutely no applications at all," he said. Smith said he's thankful for the staff members who have returned after a long hiatus.

Both men say the labour shortage is an industry-wide problem.

"We're scrambling for staff right now and unfortunately for whatever reason, everybody is in the same boat," Smith said.

'That's a lot of people'

Before the pandemic, between the Rocky Mountain Ice House and its sister business Cask & Barrel, there were almost 50 staff. Now, Palmer is operating the pub with just a half dozen.

"When I have a 5,000 square foot room, and I need, honestly, on a Friday night, event night Saturday, which we have every weekend, I need three people on the bar, I need probably four or five servers on the floor, three security.

"That's a lot of people."

In Stage 2, indoor dining is allowed with a limit of six people per table and two metres distancing or impermeable barriers between tables. Stage 3 on July 1 will see almost all public health restrictions dropped.

Palmer said he has to be careful given the staffing issue.

"I could just open the doors and fill up every seat," he said. 

"But what that's going to do is going to overtax my staff, the kitchen is not going to be able to perform properly, customers — the level of service that we strive for won't be there."

Workers want change

Katy Ingraham, co-owner of Edmonton's Fleisch Delikatessen and spokesperson for the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, predicts Stage 3 will be chaotic. Restaurants that have shown a continued dedication to safety will take a "slower, more cautious approach," she said.

"But I think other places that haven't necessarily done that are going to rush things."

Ingraham said for servers and other staff, that could create stressful and unsafe environments.

"What we know is that being indoors with unmasked patrons is not necessarily a safe place to be," she said. Employers need to ensure there is adequate personal protective equipment available as servers deal with unmasked patrons, she said.

Katy Ingraham says restaurant workers need to be paid better and treated with more respect. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The pandemic has exposed cracks in the restaurant industry, according to Ingraham. She said it's a "notoriously underpaid type of work," which is prone to wage theft, wages below the minimum and the precarity of tipping.

"Restaurant work is work that needs to be valued and respected with a living wage," she said.

She said it should come as no surprise that many are not returning to work after living on income support during the pandemic. Ingraham said workers want to see change: living wages and safer, more equitable environments.

"Frankly, many of them are leaving the industry because they don't see that change happening fast enough — or at all."

With files from Emily Fitzpatrick and Lucie Edwardson


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