The restaurant and bar industry continues to face struggles in the wake of restrictive COVID-19 policy that led to the departure of thousands of servers and other staff.
The industry lost roughly 180,000 workers nationwide, according to Statistics Canada, with many showing no interest in returning to their former employment.
As former employees sought work with fewer risks and more stability in other sectors, businesses have now been left desperate to fill vacancies to maintain their operations and meet demand.
“Our employment dropped drastically,” says Adam Cherry, COO and brew master of Stonehooker Brewery in Mississauga. “We’ve lost most of our front of house serving staff, pre-COVID you know when we were fully-functioning we had potentially 15 to 20 different staff available at any time and it went down and we’re at about 5 of the front of house staff now.”
Workers’ departure was the result of the mass shutdown of all food service institutions in response to the pandemic.
Government subsidies such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) aimed to alleviate financial burdens faced by business owners by covering up to 75 per cent of an employee’s wages to help them retain staff.
However, CEWS benefits fell short for many whose revenue was simply too low to accommodate their typical number of staff, resulting in widespread layoffs.
“The government kind of promoted this subsidy as like ‘don’t layoff all your people we’ll help you pay them,’ but they don’t pay the full salary, we’d be closed if we tried to keep 25 or 30 people employed with what they were providing,” says Luca D’Aprile, owner of Vibo restaurant in Etobicoke. “They were only paying 75 per cent so where does the other 25 per cent come from if you’re doing zero revenue, out of your pocket? How much debt do you want to take on?”
The industry’s standard of habitually paying workers less than minimum wage followed by increasing volatility and safety concerns due to the pandemic led to decreased desirability among potential hires, D’Aprile says.
Even now as restaurants and bars are beginning to offer higher wages to attract staff, data from Statistics Canada shows the food and accommodation sector continues to have the highest vacancy rate in the country.