P.E.I. hospitality industry struggling to find staff as tourism booms
'If rents don’t start to moderate, Island employers are going to have to adjust to higher pay'
With tourism back in full swing on Prince Edward Island for the first time since 2019, operators say they're struggling to find the staff they need to run smoothly near peak capacity.
Some say they've also found the employment landscape has shifted from pre-pandemic days, making staff harder to find.
"People during the pandemic have left our industry, and some have moved on," said Kevin Murphy, president and CEO of Murphy Hospitality Group. The group's website says it operates 16 food and beverage establishments, two boutique hotels and the Prince Edward Island Brewing Company.
Another reason workers are hard to find, according to Murphy, is "there are a lot of programs out there right now with federal assistance that's probably being a deterrent for people to get back in the workforce."
Early on in the pandemic the federal government launched the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), offering $2,000 per month to Canadians whose employment had been impacted by shutdown measures designed to keep the coronavirus from spreading.
CERB transitioned to the Canada recovery benefit (CRB) — and last month, the federal government extended the eligibility period for CRB until Oct. 23.
No summer hiring since 2019
Before the pandemic, Murphy said his company would normally have as many as 500 staff on duty during the off-season, increasing that to 800 with a bout of hiring each spring to prepare for the coming summer.
He said the pandemic left only 350 staff in place at the lowest point, and for the last two seasons, his company hasn't conducted its normal summer hiring.
The Murphy Group is now operating with about 450 workers, leaving its restaurants and other businesses short-staffed — and in some cases, having to reduce their opening hours.
Murphy said the industry wasn't sure what to expect this summer as P.E.I. began reopening to the rest of Canada by not requiring fully vaccinated people to isolate as of July 18. Operators certainly weren't prepared for how quickly travellers flocked back to the Island.
"What's happened is we've gone from zero to 60, let's call it, in 10 days in our industry," said Murphy, "and that has put an enormous stress on operations that … were operating under skeleton staffs and now they're trying to staff up and they can't find staff."
Murphy said the most acute shortage is for staff to clean hotel rooms. He said some hotels have had to sideline a portion of their rooms, not offering them for bookings because they don't have the staff to clean them.
Senior management cleaning rooms
At the Holman Grand Hotel in Charlottetown, they're operating at full occupancy on weekends — but in order to do so, they had to press senior management from parent company Dyne Holdings into room-cleaning duty.
"Our senior management have been involved helping any way we can, stripping rooms, that sort of thing, pulling family in to help out for a day here and a day there," said Dyne Holdings president John Cudmore.
Cudmore said business returned more quickly than his company had anticipated after that July 18 reopening date.
It's not just cleaners. He said a lack of kitchen staff has forced his company to limit table reservations at the restaurant at the Holman Grand, particularly on rainy days when vacationing families tend to abandon P.E.I.'s beaches to spend the day in Charlottetown.
Cudmore said they're scaling back "for the sake of keeping quality for the guests we do have and keeping our team organized and ready to prepare."
Not a labour shortage — a 'wage shortage'
Some say the problem isn't so much a shortage of workers. It's "a wage shortage," said Jillian Kilfoil, executive director of Women's Network P.E.I.
"The pandemic and government programs to support Canadians during a global pandemic are not disincentives to work, but instead highlight the poor working conditions that were normalized pre-pandemic," she said.
"Employers do need to do better in terms of creating supportive workplaces that provide living wages and living working conditions."
University of Prince Edward Island economist Jim Sentance noted that even before the pandemic began, P.E.I. had 'one of the tightest labour markets in the country for 15- to 24-year-olds."
He said the number of available workers in that age cohort has decreased through the pandemic because the number of international students and new immigrants fell.
Sentance also said there are other factors like the availability of child care and increasing housing costs that could be making it more difficult for companies to find workers for the wages they are offering.
"If rents don't start to moderate, Island employers are going to have to adjust to higher pay," he said.
Foreign workers 'part of the solution'?
Cudmore said his company has pushed the starting salary for cleaners at the Holman Grand past $14 an hour. Four positions for cleaners at the hotel were listed recently on a federal job bank website, with starting wages of $14.25.
But a quick search of that same website will reveal many listings for jobs in P.E.I.'s hospitality industry that start at the minimum wage of $13 an hour.
Immigration is going to be part of the solution of ensuring that we have enough workers if they're not here in Prince Edward Island.— Kevin Murphy
"If the operation is paying minimum wage, part of the problem lies with the operator," said Murphy.
He said the Murphy Group is evaluating its compensation package for employees, something he said he expected to continue for the next two years.
In the meantime, Murphy, Cudmore and others in the industry are taking a cue from the farming and fish processing industries, looking to the temporary foreign worker program as a possible solution to their worker woes.
"Immigration is going to be part of the solution of ensuring that we have enough workers if they're not here in Prince Edward Island," said Murphy.