Pandemic erased one-third of Manitoba food services and hotel jobs. Will restaurants ever recover?
New StatsCan employment data shows most sectors of Manitoba's economy have recovered from COVID-19
During the before times, the happier days before the pandemic, Tyrone Welchinski was making a name for himself in Winnipeg's culinary world.
The 31-year-old Winnipeg chef was in charge of the kitchen at Nonsuch Brewing Co., where he specialized in cured meat and perfected a brisket-and-chuck cheeseburger.
When the first lockdown hit last spring, Welchinski soldiered on as Nonsuch switched to takeout service. When the second, longer lockdown was imposed in November, he found himself washing dishes in an effort to keep the kitchen functioning after most of his colleagues were laid off.
Welchinski was finally laid off during the first week of January, after surviving the first 9½ months of the pandemic.
He became one of thousands of Manitobans to lose their jobs in the food services and accommodations sector, which has suffered more pandemic damage than any other component of the provincial economy.
"This past year has really burned me out. The amount of changes every week — having your staff there one week, the rules changing, having to let go of your staff, bringing them back — the whole thing has been really taxing," Welchinski said.
There were 13,200 fewer people working in food services and accommodations in February 2021 compared to the February before the pandemic, according to labour force statistics published Friday morning by Statistics Canada.
That's a 31 per cent drop in employment in restaurants and hotels.
A total of 17,100 Manitobans lost their jobs during that period and 6,000 left the workforce entirely.
But most sectors of the economy rebounded in some manner, as the pandemic-induced recession has turned out to be what economists call a sector-specific recession.
"The people who are able to work at home haven't been affected very much, apart from being under house arrest, but there are people who are dealing with the public who have been severely harmed," said Philippe Cyrenne, a University of Winnipeg economics professor.
The pandemic has caused disproportionate harm to young adults, who are more likely to work in service jobs, as well as women, part-time workers and single parents with children.
Those categories tend to overlap, creating a situation where young, single mothers have been hit unusually hard, as both their jobs and their child-care options have disappeared.
"I'm sure many households had sort of informal arrangements where kids would play with others after school or go to other houses or get support from friends and neighbours and extended family. Of course, all that has been severely curtailed, if not just scrapped to a certain extent," said Fletcher Baragar, a University of Manitoba economics professor.
"What the last year has shown us that the safety net for many is very thin and they don't have a lot of alternative options."
The pandemic has only widened gaps in the labour force, especially between men and women and young adults compared to every other age demographic.
"The one problem that you have with a lockdown is that it's such a broad policy brush, and I always thought that you should be more judicious in terms of how you treat different sectors," Cyrenne said.
"I never was a fan of this essential versus nonessential [categorization]. For the people who are working in those industries, it seems like it's a pretty essential job for them, so I think you're still going to need some supports for these industries."
Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government has tended to shy away from pandemic-aid programs targeted to specific worker demographics as well as specific sector, such as food services and accommodations.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding's office said more than 300 hotels and 2,200 restaurants received up to $15,000 each from the Manitoba's bridge-grant program, which is open to almost all businesses.
The province also earmarked $50 million in January to held the most pandemic-impacted sectors of the economy recover. A program to deliver this money remains a work in progress.
The question is whether the food-service and accommodations sector will ever return to its pre-pandemic form.
Tourism in Manitoba is not expected to recover from the pandemic before 2024. Restaurants are more of a question mark, as consumers grow more accustomed to cooking at home and ordering takeout.
"It's been one year, and people can develop new habits or break old habits in that period of time," said Cyrenne.
The food-services sector, which once employed so many young adults, may never bounce back, he said.
"A concern going forward is whether that sector is going to shrink. And if it shrinks, then the question is what other sectors are going to take up the slack?"
Elsa Taylor is among the Winnipeg restaurateurs banking on a future for her industry.
Before the pandemic, the 26-year-old entrepreneur and her business partners co-owned two Winnipeg restaurants — The Roost, a rooftop bar on Corydon Avenue, and Oxbow, on Osborne Street.
They then bought into a third, Forth Bar in the Exchange District, assuming more risk — and the debt that comes with it — in the middle of a pandemic-induced downturn.
"We were fortunate that we were able to have more credit and take out new loans," Taylor said of her recession-era acquisition, adding the pandemic only exacerbated the uncertainty that already swirled around her industry.
"At this point, a year in, I am slowly, slowly become accustomed to not having a status quo to rely on and to just feeling like I am constantly flying by the seat of my pants," she said.
"In a way, that is a familiar feeling, being a restaurant owner."
Welchinski is less enamoured with restaurants after losing his job and his kitchen at Nonsuch.
"Maybe more people are comfortable cooking at home now. Maybe they're taking more joy in that. I don't know if people are chomping at the bit to get out there and get back in restaurants," he said.
He has started up a charcuterie business, Welchinski's, in order to sell his cured meat directly to customers. But even this venture comes with uncertainty.
"Even with my product, my main concern is, like, are people going to pay for it?"