Nfld. & Labrador

Pandemic adds new complication to old staffing problem, says fish plant owner

Bill Barry says some of the issues in staffing relate to the COVID-19 pandemic but the majority of the problem has been building up over the years.

Plants about 25% short on staff, Bill Barry says

Bill Barry, CEO of the Barry group of companies, says some plants are 25 per cent below where they should be in terms of staff this spring. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

A fish plant owner from Corner Brook says his plants are short on workers this season, and he says COVID-19 and employment insurance are to blame.

Bill Barry, CEO of the Barry Group of Companies, which owns several fish plants across the province, said some of the issues with staffing relate to fears around the pandemic but the majority of the problem has been building up over the years.

"We all knew as an industry there was a time coming when the vast majority of people that have been employed in these plants in my lifetime would retire," Barry told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

"And so that's been slowly and slowly [happening]. It just happened to correspond [with COVID-19]; the cracking off point was coming anyway. One didn't cause the other."

Barry said some plants started the season around 40 per cent short on employees, while others have been unable to properly start the season at all due to a lack of available employees.

"All the plants are not up and going yet. We've been short workers," he said. "We're probably short … my guess would be 25 per cent of the workers we need."

While concern for safety during the pandemic has kept some workers away, Barry said, the industry needs to modernize to attract a new generation of workers into plants.

"We have to become an attractive alternative so that we can provide stable, better-paying jobs for the next generation," he said. 

Some workers have decided not to enter fish plants due to COVID-19, but Barry says the problem of worker shortages has been building in recent years. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Barry also said the employment insurance system isn't working for fish plants and needs to change to help the industry.

"We need a modern day one. This whole idea of having the EI program, that just stamps everybody up to get 14 weeks," he said. "And when they get their 14 weeks, because of the way employment has been in Newfoundland, people feel their security is getting under the [EI] system.… There's a real disincentive to get in for one or two days or so many hours."

Barry said he would like to see the current EI system fall in favour of a guaranteed income system.

"It would encourage people beyond their basic income cheque that they would get to go out and get one hour, two hours, 10, 15, 20 ,30," he said. "Whatever they did get, they would actually be able to keep. Where now, the incentive is for them to hide away from work after they get their stamps."

"We don't want incentives for workers, or anybody else, to not to go to work."

Greg Pretty is the fish plant representative for the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union. (CBC)

Greg Pretty, fish plant representative with the Fish, Food & Allied Workers union, says the issues Barry brings up are not new, but there is fear and apprehension around plant work right now as a result of COVID-19.

While Pretty said he supports changes to EI, especially during the pandemic, he has reservations about the points Barry made.

"I agree with him. It needs to change, but it needs to change for the better," he said. "It needs to be more responsive, it needs to spit out more money."

Pretty said the onus should be put on the plants to extend the season for workers.

"I get a kick out of these companies who say someone living on 55 per cent of 14 or 15 dollars an hour is some kind of a good deal for people … well, it's not," he added.

"These are the same companies that are taking the fish out of Newfoundland, sending it to Asia, and then going around saying 'We can't get any workers' [and] they can't supply a worthwhile season. What are we talking 14 weeks for? That should be 20 weeks' work with the amount of fish that's being taken out of the province."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Broadcast