St-Albert cheese co-op churning out fewer curds as worker shortage worsens

The St-Albert Cheese Co-op has been in business for nearly 130 years, but while the company wants to expand, it says a worker shortage is instead forcing it to cut production.

Eastern Ontario co-op increased hourly wage, other perks to help attract potential employees

The St-Albert Cheese Co-op has had to discontinue certain products because a worker shortage is preventing the manufacturer from meeting a growing demand. (Denis Babin/Radio-Canada)

The St-Albert Cheese Co-op has been churning out cheddar for nearly 130 years, but while the company wants to expand, it says a worker shortage is instead forcing it to cut production.

The company, located near Casselman, Ont., is hoping to recruit between 25 and 40 people just to maintain current production levels.

"It's tough," said Éric Lafontaine, the company's general manager. "It's really tough."

He said the company — which makes a dozen different products from cheddar to curds — is in a position to grow because the demand is there, but the lack of staff has forced it in the opposite direction. 

"That's the challenge we have, is growing with a labour shortage," he said.

The company has boosted its hourly wage and is offering other perks, but Lafontaine said it still doesn't appear to be enough of a draw for potential employees.

"Even though we've increased those salaries, we're still having a hard time filling those positions."

Éric Lafontaine, general manager of the St-Albert Cheese Co-op, says a worker shortage is affecting the company's ability to meet production targets. (CBC)

Because of the shortage, the company has had to discontinue some products entirely, such as marble cheese, even as customers across the region search for those items.

"That's the sad part, but we have no choice," he said.

Regional labour shortage

The fromagerie isn't alone in its quest to find employees willing to relocate to the rural location, approximately 60 km southeast of downtown Ottawa, which is also grappling with a housing shortage.

"If we were in the city, it would be a different story," said Lafontaine.

The local labour shortage is on the radar of Glengarry–Prescott–Russell MP Francis Drouin. He told Radio-Canada the lack of employees is being felt throughout the region and a program is in the works involving the area's municipalities to attract more people. 

The company is offering higher wages in an effort to attract the more than two dozen new staff it needs to meet production targets. (Denis Babin/Radio-Canada)

Lafontaine admits the pandemic isn't entirely to blame as the company was already in the midst of a labour shortage before the pandemic but the situation has only gotten worse in the past year and a half, with the last few weeks being especially difficult.

"We can make 100 calls and there are two that answer us," said Valérie Huppé, the company's director of human resources, which has focused much of its resources on recruitment. "And of those two, sometimes there is zero that shows up."

Huppé said while some jobs are naturally harder to fill than others, this is the first time she's experienced problems trying to fill every position available.

"It is really intense research work," she said. 

In the meantime, Lafontaine said he's worried the company is falling so far behind in production that it could take several years to meet expected targets.

With files from Radio-Canada's Denis Babin


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