Recruiting 'a nightmare' for restaurants as Ontario loosens indoor dining restrictions

More jobs are becoming available as Ontario gets ready to move to the next stage of its COVID-19 reopening plan, but restaurant operators say hiring staff is proving difficult.

Expert says low-wage industries could continue to face recruiting challenges

Some restaurant operators are offering higher wages, benefit packages and flexible hours in the hopes of recruiting new employees as Ontario plans to lift restrictions on indoor dining. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

More jobs are becoming available as Ontario gets ready to move to the next stage of its COVID-19 reopening plan, but restaurant operators say hiring staff is proving difficult.

Last week, the provincial government announced it would lift even more restrictions. As of Friday, restaurants can seat as many customers as they can fit as long as they are physically distanced.

What should have been good news for an industry that's been closed to in-person dining throughout much of the last year and a half has revealed staffing challenges many operators aren't sure they'll overcome.

"It's been a nightmare," said Gord Gifford, general manager of the Savoy Brasserie in Ottawa, who is desperately searching for staff to work in all areas of the restaurant.

"People will be walking by and seeing empty tables and wondering why they can't sit there and it's just [because] we don't have the staff."

To entice people to work at his restaurant, Gifford said he has increased wages, introduced employee benefits and even offered part-time hours for people who still want to receive government pandemic assistance.

Short staffed

Donna Chevrier is facing the same obstacle.

"Everyone's trying to hire at the same time so there's the biggest, biggest problem," said Chevrier, owner and chef at Ola Cocina Taqueria in Vanier.

Chevrier's restaurant used to be open for six days a week but due to a lack of staff, it can only operate four days a week.

While she hasn't introduced benefits like Gifford, Chevrier said wages range from $15 to $20 per hour plus tips, depending on experience.

"I don't think the restaurant trade is ever going to be the same," Chevrier said. 

Donna Chevrier, owner of Ola Cocina Taqueria in Vanier, says she can only operate four days a week because of a shortage of staff. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Restaurant operators all point to the same reason to explain why people don't want to return to work — the federal government's income support program. It provides $1,000 over a two week period to those who don't qualify for employment insurance (EI). 

"With all the government programs going on, everybody's pretty well taking the summer off, so we're struggling," said Bassel Khalil, co-owner of Napoli's Café in Stittsville.

However, some experts say there are other factors to explain Canada's tight labour market.

Employees seeking security

Liam Daly, an economist with the Conference Board of Canada, said labour shortages are not new in Canada, but the current situation is exacerbated by the pandemic. 

"Certain industries have really been in a cycle of opening and closing for well over 12 months and are now only starting to see the prospect of a more sustained reopening," said Daly.

"It seems likely that many workers would have chosen to reorientate [to] different sectors and to try and ... search for work in industries where employment is a little less volatile." 

It's not just the hospitality industry that's struggling to recruit new employees, Daly said. Labour force surveys show that retail, manufacturing and resource production are also facing challenges.

While Daly doesn't believe there's "an inherent reluctance to work among people," he said employers in low-wage industries could continue to face recruiting challenges, which may be a catalyst for them to pay employees more.

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