Nova Scotia

Some N.S. restaurants offering bonuses, higher wages in struggle to attract workers

Business owners in rural Nova Scotia have been forced to get creative to attract staff in the current labour market, with few applicants for restaurant jobs.

'We're thinking of ways to stay open until the end of September.'

Business in the service industry in Nova Scotia have been struggle to attract workers, forcing them to cut hours and work in understaffed environments. (CBC)

Restaurant owners in rural Nova Scotia are turning to incentives like bonuses and higher wages to attract staff, but are still struggling to fill job openings in a competitive labour market.

Restaurants across the province have been open for indoor dining since July 14, and capacity for indoor dining will increase when Nova Scotia moves into Phase 5 of its reopening plan, which is expected to happen on Sept. 15. 

But if there's no staff to meet increased capacity, restaurants may be forced to make drastic changes. Three restaurant owners spoke to Information Morning Nova Scotia's Portia Clark about the challenges they are facing to stay open.

80 days of work 

Jessika Hepburn is the owner of the Biscuit Eater Café and Books in Mahone Bay, N.S. 

Hepburn has recently been struggling to find a chef, despite offering a $21 per hour wage. She said finding workers has been hard over the past three years, but it has reached a critical point in the last 12 months. 

Housing, hiring bonuses, and higher wages... some local business owners are trying out creative approaches as a last ditch effort to attract workers in a difficult labour market.

Hepburn says at one point, she worked 80 days without a day off because of low staffing. Her café was also forced to turn diners with reservations away at the door because staff were overworked.

She says a lack of affordable housing could be the reason.

As people with higher incomes have moved into rural communities, Hepburn said, housing has become scarce and rents have increased. Hepburn says this has forced a lot of working class people into urban areas, effectively removing the main pool of service industry workers.

"That's the working poor who has typically worked in the service industry," she said.

A report last year from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the "living wage" in a survey of four communities was well above Nova Scotia's minimum wage of $12.95 per hour. The report defines a living wage as the amount a family needs to avoid severe financial stress and have a decent quality of life. 

People in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality require at least $17.65 an hour, while the centre set the living wage in Antigonish at $19.55. Bridgewater's living wage estimate was $16.80 and Halifax was the highest at $21.80.

Jessika Hepburn is the owner of the Biscuit Eater Café and Books located in Mahone Bay, N.S. (Submitted by Jessika Hepburn)

No resumes have been coming in, but she has had luck formerly when she offered housing as an incentive. 

Above the Biscuit Eater, there are two apartments that she has rented out to two people that work for her.

"The only way that I could have them come is because I had housing to offer, so there would have been no employees at all if I didn't have the flexibility of having at least an apartment space to offer," she said.

She said this shortage in staff isn't because people don't want to work, it's because of how people treats those who work in the service industry.

"You're doing it with people who you're serving who don't always have a sense of awareness of the fact that you've been working really hard for a really long time."

$500 bonus

Mike Bishop is the co-owner of The Barn, which has a location in Lunenburg and another in Mahone Bay.

He recently started offering a $500 bonus to new employees after a two-month probationary period.

"Typically people stay, but we had a lot of students this year, so we've lost about half of our staff," he said.

Normally they have people dropping off resumes even when they aren't hiring, but this year they've received none for the fall.

End-of-season struggles

Robyn Stewart owns the Long Table Social Club, a restaurant in Canning, N.S., just before the Cape Split trail.

Stewart says they just opened this past May, and are already experiencing a shortage of staff.

She was offering at least $15 an hour, an end-of-season bonus, and a meal for staff that work minimum four-hour shifts. But at this point in their first May-October season, things are not looking good.

"I'm going to be very lucky if I reach October, to be honest," she said.

Stewart says she had expected to see a "flurry of applications", but she hasn't seen any, forcing them to change their hours to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are also only open Wednesday to Sunday.

They are now offering $16-18 an hour and Stewart hopes they will make it to the end of their season as originally planned.

"We're thinking of ways to stay open until the end of September."


  • A previous version of this story stated the staff at Jessika Hepburn's restaurant worked 80 days straight due to low staffing. In fact, only Hepburn worked 80 days straight. This story has been updated.
    Sep 02, 2021 2:52 PM AT

With files from CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia

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