restaurant workers

There still simply aren’t enough restaurant workers

Foodservice operators have been doing all they can to attract more restaurant workers but, amid soaring inflation and food costs, measures like hiking wages, introducing benefits, increasing flexibility, and trimming menus just aren’t getting the job done.

Canada’s restaurant industry was devastated by two years of shutdowns, repeated layoffs, and strict capacity limits, and about 13,000 eateries across the country closed permanently, reports The Canadian Press.

Even now, with operations open fully again, the trauma continues.

Job vacancies in the accommodation and foodservice industry surged 37 per cent to 158,100 positions at the beginning of March, according to Statistics Data data cited by the Financial Post. The vacancy rate in the sector was 12.8 per cent, the highest among the 20 industry groups that Statistics Canada monitors.

At a time when restaurants should be eagerly looking forward to their first wide-open summer patio season since 2019, the industry expects restaurant workers vacancies will rise to 210,000 across the country over the next months, said Olivier Bourbeau, VP of federal affairs with Restaurants Canada.

“It’s extremely difficult for restaurants to find staff,” Bourbeau said. “We just don’t have enough workers.”

The problem is being felt most in kitchens, where everyone from line cooks to head chefs is needed.

A perfect storm

It’s hard to pin down a single primary cause for the shortage of restaurant workers, but there are certainly multiple factors at work.

The ongoing effects of the pandemic, such as a stretched supply chain, have made things tough. Statistics Canada reported the annual inflation rate hit 6.7 per cent in March, and food costs have increased even more. The conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated those issues. Then, there are the longstanding question marks over the industry such as work culture and conditions have all played their part, experts say.

This all, of course, breeds yet more uncertainty, even with the worst of the pandemic behind us. The industry group Tourism HR Canada is predicting the labour shortage will continue until 2028.

Few restaurant owners report feeling optimistic about the foreseeable future, according to various surveys and studies, and longer-term planning is near-impossible.

In an attempt to combat it, restaurants have tried everything from increasing wages, eliminating less profitable items or meals, reducing their opening hours, shrinking portion sizes, and in some cases, more drastic measures.

“It’s a big-time problem,” Brian McCourt, culinary director at the Ignite Group of restaurant, told CBC. “We’ve had to close Crowsfoot [Smokehaus] on Monday and Tuesday due to staffing issues. Graffiti Market is a revolving door of cooks… I don’t understand where all the cooks went. It’s crazy and it’s forcing our core teams to work extra hours and run the risk of burnout.”

Ian Tostenson, CEO and president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, told CBC the provincial sector has lost around 35,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic.

“A lot of people left the industry because there wasn’t consistent employment,” he said. “They went to tech, they went to healthcare, they went to school. So now everyone’s competing against each other to be the best employer to attract people.”

Tostenson said the labour “crisis” has left some restaurants with no other choice but to hire younger people with less experience as well as rely heavily on skilled international workers to help. However, the latter hasn’t been easy even with changes to the TFW program.

“That’s why we’re calling it a crisis. It used to take five months to get a skilled worker. Now it takes over a year. That to me is unacceptable.”