As restrictions begin to lift in some parts of the country, restaurants are dusting off their patios or reopening their dining rooms and calling back staff — but not all employees are returning.
“About 60 per cent of [our staff] are not coming back due to the fact that they either found something different to make a living or have moved out of the city,” said Lora Pankova, general manager of Cibo Wine Bar in downtown Toronto.
The restaurant, located in Toronto’s entertainment district, had no issues finding staff pre-pandemic who were eager to work in the busy area.
“We have always had people dropping in, resumes coming by,” said Pankova.
But these are different times. As restaurants in Ontario prepare to reopen patios on June 11, competition for staff is heating up. Cibo held its first-ever job fair last week, after Ontario’s stay-at-home order was lifted. The interviews were spaced out timing-wise and physically distanced at the empty restaurant.
Interviewees were told on the spot if they got the job.
“If you like someone … we need to hire them right away,” said Pankova.
In May, there were still 364,000 fewer people working in the accommodation and food services sector compared to February 2020, according to Statistics Canada’s labour force survey. Economists expect that many of the lost job positions will return as restrictions lift, but filling them is the new challenge.
When Toronto Italian restaurant Oretta opens its patio on Friday, there will still be some gaps in its staffing — so management will help serve customers.
“I honestly thought that we were going to be overwhelmed by applications,” said Oretta bar manager Alessandro Aureli.
Aureli says people are re-evaluating their careers and lifestyles, while others are concerned about their health and safety as the pandemic continues.
“That’s translated into us losing some staff,” said Aureli.
“It’s been a struggle to find new hirings.”
Pre-pandemic worker shortage
Before COVID-19, the restaurant sector was already struggling to fill more than 60,000 vacant positions, according to industry group Restaurants Canada, and it says the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.
Staffing challenges aren’t limited to Ontario, according to the group’s vice-president of Western Canada, Mark von Schellwitz.
“With the stops and starts of restrictions, and difficulties with COVID, a lot of our previous employees in B.C. and Alberta have gone on and found jobs in other careers that weren’t so impacted by COVID, because they just couldn’t handle the uncertainty,” he said.
In B.C., indoor dining was most recently shut down March 29. The closure lasted for two months.
“It was extremely difficult to relaunch the restaurants … rehiring is not as fast as reopening,” said Emad Yacoub, president of Glowbal Group, which operates nine restaurants in the Vancouver area, including Coast, Black+Blue, Five Sails, and The Roof.
He currently has 500 staff — but needs 80 more immediately. When capacity expands and indoor dining rooms reopen, he’ll need another 200.
Yacoub said he would usually hire many international students who can work in Canada while they study here, but that’s not an option this year.
Seeking out staff across the country
“It’s an extreme shortage,” said Yacoub, who’s using head-hunters to expand his staff search to Toronto and Calgary.
“This year is going to cost almost $150,000 [in] recruiting fees, to get people from outside of the province.”
Plus, he says it’s proving to be a “dog-eat-dog world”, as some of his staff are being sought out by other employers right in front of him.
“I watched a restaurant owner come in … and by the end of the night, they pulled out their business card and gave it to half my staff,” said Yacoub.
But there is also some optimism in the industry, that the increased competition for workers could lead to positive changes to employment conditions.
Paul Grunberg, owner and operator of several restaurants in the Vancouver area, including Caffe la Tana, Osteria, Savio Volpe and Pepino’s Spaghetti House, had to lay off 60 staff in March, and about half are choosing not to return.
“What do people want now? Do they want job security? Do they want medical benefits? Do they want higher wages, higher tips? The good news is — we’re listening and we’re wide awake,” he said.
But those benefits could be expensive, and along with the additional costs of B.C.’s new minimum wage, COVID precautions such as Plexiglas, facemasks, hand sanitizer, and extra cleaning supplies — customers should expect to pay more for their meals, said Grunberg.
“If you were paying 40 bucks for that steak pre-COVID, that same steak is going to be $45.”