Cost of Living

Profit-sharing, signing bonuses and health benefits. Food-service bosses try it all to lure workers back

The food-service industry had a labour shortage before the pandemic. Now it’s nearly doubled — and employers are trying everything they can to get people to work for them.

The industry had a labour shortage before the pandemic. Now it’s nearly doubled.

David Owen, president and owner of De La Mer Fresh Fish Market, is seen here at the biggest of his four Toronto locations, on Danforth Avenue. Because of staff shortages, Owen said he made the difficult decision to close the shops on Mondays and Tuesdays. (Brandie Weikle/CBC)

David Owen says it normally takes 36 employees to run his four Toronto fish shops, with enough staff to cover off vacations and sick days. 

But a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, De La Mer Fresh Fish Market is around 10 people short.

"We used to put a job posting up and we'd get an average of 100 applicants over a week. Now we're getting 30 or 40. And we may not hire any," he said. 

Owen is not alone. Now that the public health restrictions that either limited capacity or closed doors entirely have mostly been lifted, the food service industry — restaurants, delis, bakeries and other small food shops — doesn't have enough people to run at full capacity.

"We've actually had to reduce hours and close two days a week, because we simply didn't have enough staff to run without burning out the crew that we had," said Owen.

Prior to reducing store hours, Owen said his staff were getting burned out. He needs about 36 employees to run his four locations, but has been making do with 26. (Brandie Weikle/CBC)

Labour market statistics showed that there were about 68,000 unfilled jobs in the food service and accommodation sector before the pandemic hit, said Todd Barclay, president and CEO of Restaurants Canada, the industry association representing food-service employers.

According to Statistics Canada's latest job vacancy data, that number has nearly doubled to around 130,000.

Industry experts say the problem stems from a range of factors including demographic shifts, uncertainty about stability and safety related to COVID-19, relatively low wages and the fact that some people who were laid off in the crisis have taken the time to retrain. 

That's what Maggie DeVito did. She had worked for eight years in food-service jobs in Vancouver, ranging from hostess to bartender, when the pandemic hit.

"It happened very quickly. We had one slow week and next thing I knew, we were closed down for two months, [then] came back to work just to get laid off a few months later, again."

Given that she and her partner both worked in the hospitality industry and were laid off at the same time, DeVito said felt she had to switch to a more stable career. A colleague of hers had just retrained for a tech career and suggested DeVito do a web development boot camp through Lighthouse Labs. 

"And I kind of just quickly took the dive and applied to school, and started within a couple of months after that," DeVito said.

Maggie DeVito was working as a bartender in Vancouver when pandemic shutdowns left her out of work. She retrained as a web developer through Lighthouse Labs, which runs coding boot camps. (Submitted by Maggie DeVito)

Qualifying for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) gave her just enough money to pay the bills while making that shift.

DeVito said it was challenging, but she's now employed full time as a web developer in the music industry — a job she does from home. 

She still bartends one day a week to help recoup some of the cash she lost during the pandemic, and because "it's really nice to go into work on a Friday night and be active and social with these other service industry workers who have become basically family."

But she said she can't imagine going back to the industry full time.

"Having less capacity in restaurants now means that tips have gone down for everybody. So it's too much of a risk to be going somewhere where you don't know what kind of tips you're going to be making or, you know, even if the restaurants are going to be open in a week from now."

Demographic challenges

Barclay said the sector has been struggling with labour shortages for about a decade, and part of the problem is demographics.

"A significant percentage of the people who are employed in our industry happen to be younger people," he said, noting that fewer of them are choosing to work in the field — or have part-time jobs at all. 

Todd Barclay, president and CEO of Restaurants Canada, says the field has been experiencing a labour shortage for around a decade, and coming out of pandemic-related shutdowns, the number of open jobs has doubled compared to February 2020. (Restaurants Canada)

If teenagers were as likely to work today as they were even in 2008, Barclay said, there would be 100,000 more people in the labour market.

But this also tracks with the overall "greying" of Canada's population, said labour economist Tony Bonen, director of research, data and analytics with the Labour Market Information Council in Ottawa, an organization that studies the job market.

The baby boom generation is either retired or approaching retirement, and younger generations simply aren't as large, said Bonen. 

The shortage of workers in the food-service industry, which employs a lot of young people, is connected to the overall 'greying' of Canada’s population, said labour economist Tony Bonen. (Dwayne Brown Studio)

"Now that we're coming out of this, where we've recovered a lot of the pre-pandemic employment level, those long-run dynamics we saw before COVID-19 hit are resurfacing again. They never went away."

Bonuses and other incentives

Despite an overall unemployment rate of 7.1 per cent in August, compared to 5.6 per cent in February 2020, before the shutdowns, Bonen said it's challenging to get the right people to come back to a position after a disruption as long as this pandemic.

"If you're out of work for an indeterminate amount of time … people start making decisions to do other things to make ends meet and to fill other needs that they have in their life," he said. 

Owen, of the De La Mer fish shops, said he's had staff leave or cut back on hours to take advantage of some of the "subsidies and training opportunities being made available by the government for upskilling." 

To help counter this — as well as to reduce the regular turnover the business had prior to the pandemic — Owen said the company has been working to make it more appealing for workers to spend their days at the shops.

A sign spotted at a Booster Juice location in Red Deer, Alta., on Sept. 19 asks patrons to be patient because the team is short-staffed. (Jennifer Keene/CBC)

"Recently we introduced profit-sharing to all of our employees. We made it available to everybody, if they meet certain performance standards," said Owen. These are calculated using a number of metrics, including the internal training certifications completed by the staffer, number of hours worked and the stores' profitability. 

He's also added extended medical benefits for all full-time employees to cover things like prescription drugs, dental and massage therapy.

He's not the only one pulling out the stops to hire and retain workers.

In an email to newsletter subscribers on Saturday, the Teatro Group of restaurants in Calgary offered customers a $200 gift certificate if they refer a candidate who then gets hired and stays for at least two months. 

Many restaurants are offering signing bonuses for chefs, according to Ernie Tsu, president of the Alberta Hospitality Association. At his own Calgary restaurant, Trolley 5, he's paying out quarterly retention bonuses of $300 to $600 to kitchen staff who stay on, as well as referral bonuses for staffers who recommend a friend who is hired. 

The consumer's role

But many restaurant owners are also "hanging on by their fingernails" and can't fix the staff shortage on their own, said Barclay, of Restaurants Canada.

That's why the industry wants the federal government to make a bigger pool of workers available by making it easier for food-service workers to get or extend work visas, and by expanding immigration programs geared to the industry, he said. 

Owen has introduced extended health benefits and profit-sharing to help attract and retain staff. (Brandie Weikle/CBC)

Barclay said his message to Canadians is to "please come back."

"The more people that we can get back into restaurants, the greater opportunity we'll have to survive, the greater opportunity for those individuals who've been working in restaurants to earn a great living and get back on track." 

Owen said the general public needs to think differently about pricing, too.

"I think the consumer's role is to be willing to advocate for workers to have a living wage, because consumers are very willing to do that. Also, consumers need to be willing to pay the prices that go along with that living wage," he said.

"If we pay more for the products that we get, and the owners are legitimately concerned about the welfare of their employees, then everybody can get a share of the catch."


Written and produced by Brandie Weikle, with help from Anis Heydari, Danielle Nerman and Jennifer Keene.

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