Happy Valley-Goose Bay businesses seek foreign worker-ban exemption
Business owners in Happy Valley-Goose Bay are hoping to win an exemption from a federal ban on hiring temporary foreign workers.
Last year, Ottawa made changes to the program, including a ban on hiring low-wage temporary foreign workers, in regions with high unemployment.
Since then, central Labrador businesses say they're struggling to find people to work.
We have a dilemma now.- Tim Hortons franchise owner Rob Everard
"As an independent business, I can't possibly compete with Muskrat Falls wages," said Judy Voisey.
She opened Voisey's Bakery last month, and says nothing could have prepared her for the number of people coming through the door — starting with 500 on the first day alone. The demand is difficult for her to keep up with.
"This is something that I'm hoping will continue, but I need to have a staff to make more product come out," Voisey said.
"I think, right from the beginning, we knew that it would be a challenge, but we are concerned that our long-term plans will be affected by the fact that we know we can't get the staff that we're going to need."
Right now, she only has a few people on staff — including some part-time workers. Voisey needs about six full-time workers, but says no one is applying, in part because of the nature of the work.
Voisey describes working in a bakery as one of the most physically demanding jobs someone can have.
"I think that food service in itself is a very challenging part of business to fill positions in, because of the simple fact that you're doing a dozen different jobs," she said. "I may be here very early in the morning to ten o'clock in the night producing product — and then I have to clean everything up."
Having access to temporary foreign workers, she said, could help end the shortage.
The federal government's changes left regions with unemployment rates over six per cent barred from accessing the program.
Being lumped in
The Northwest Territories has an unemployment rate of just over seven per cent, but the territorial government asked for an exemption for Yellowknife itself, which has a rate just over two per cent.
Tim Hortons franchise owner Rob Everard said that's similar to the situation in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
"Because we're lumped in, in unemployment, with western Newfoundland, and all of Labrador," he said.
"The problem is, because we're lumped in, they can't even give us actual rates of unemployment for Goose Bay."
Everard estimates the town's unemployment rate at two per cent.
"Right now, at any given time, we could hire anywhere between 10 and 15 people," he said. "That's what we're short."
Those staffing levels are a big problem. Everard does have locals on staff full time, but said students come and go, and it's hard to hold on to workers.
It's also a strain on the staff he does have.
"We're running shifts," he said.
"On average, the workers that we do have work six days a week. Some even work seven. They don't mind too much, the overtime is great, obviously. But after three or four weeks of that, it starts to affect, and they burn out, and customer complaints go up for the simple fact that they're just tired."
As an independent business, I can't possibly compete with Muskrat Falls wages.- Judy Voisey
Everard said access to the program is essential for him, and echoes Voisey's sentiment that the Muskrat Falls project isn't helping.
"We have a dilemma now," he said.
"Where do we start to pay people? At what rate? There's no such thing as minimum wage anymore. Nobody pays minimum wage, not in Goose Bay anyway. At what point does it become not profitable, and why would you bother?"
Ultimately, he thinks a ban on hiring temporary foreign workers could force some businesses to close.
"Probably not Tim's," he said. "We're obviously very busy and very popular amongst our customers. But I'm not the only businessman in this town that's having trouble with staff. Everybody I talk to has the same issues. There's just too few people to go around, to do the jobs that we need done."