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Restaurants facing issues with staffing throughout pandemic

A restaurant industry expert said there is a 'mass exodus of workers' leaving the industry because of poor wages
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Restaurants have faced many issues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing shortages are among one of them.

Small businesses have had to endure lockdowns, public health guidelines, and laying off staff at the onset of the pandemic. 

Bruce McAdams is an Associate Professor in Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph and he said that we are short a couple of hundred thousand workers in the restaurant industry.

"It may not, in fact, be a labor shortage but we've been calling it that for decades," he said, "over thirty per cent of Canadians have worked in restaurants for approximately one million jobs. What we're arguing is that there has been a lot of endless supply for years and years and people coming in and coming in but now they are going and it's become a real transient industry. It's not a labour market issue but it's more the operators being able to retain them through providing decent work and opportunities."

McAdams said that it comes down to restaurant owners providing good work and opportunities for their employees.

"There are good employers out there in restaurants, there are many that aren't so good. The industry has a certain stigma about it. There's a recent poll conducted by the Canadian Tourism Human Resources Association that only 40 per cent of people would recommend hospitality to their friends or family as an industry and that was down from 60 per cent in 2017. There's a stigma about the industry that it's not a good industry that provides decent work." 

McAdams said that decent work is something the International Labour Industry came up with as a designation to determine whether workers are working in places where they can make a decent wage.

"It also means whether or not workers are safe and secure, there's equity and good work environments. 60 per cent of hospitality workers in Canada are not working in these environments. If that's the environment that you're going to present then people are going to continuously leave," he said, "we've hit a point because of COVID, the industry was always able to duct tape and glue things together because of their resilience and sticktoitiveness and their ability to make things work but that bottom is falling out and unfortunately the industry is not going to be able to recover unless they change things dramatically." 

McAdams said that firstly it starts with improving the pay of the employees. 

"When you have approximately 40 per cent of your industry being paid below a living wage, that's not sustainable. Pay has to be addressed and does that mean that the cost of restaurant experiences will go up, then yes but not as much as people think. The restaurant industry has been plagued with toxic work environments, accusations of harassment, inequity, and systemic racism and those are all true and things that we study. Those things need to be eradicated from the industry for it to move forward."

McAdams said that there is a progressive group of people who were talking about a reset of the industry to try and help these issues.

"There was a real movement to talk about that. These people had closed their properties and they had a real opportunity to reflect and look at what they were doing. They said that they have a system that doesn't work that makes them vulnerable like a pandemic coming along. We need to change the way we are doing things and there has been a groundswell of support for a reset in the industry," he said. 

McAdams said that one of the biggest issues that restaurants have in North America is the number of franchises we have. The franchise model is built on low cost, and low wage skills and has really brought the pay down. It has introduced people to the industry but there are also unfortunately many people operating these properties are people who have no experience in the restaurant industry that the reason they've gone to the franchise model is that they just have to put up the money and the franchisee will take care of the rest of it." 

McAdams said that North America hasn't set up the restaurant model for people who work in the industry to afford a mortgage and raise a family on a restaurant job. 

"For the longest time, we were able to get by and make it work and really walk this fine edge but the pandemic has really pushed us over, there's a mass exodus of people who have left the industry because of the lack of decent work and seeing other opportunities to retrain themselves and they aren't coming back."

He mentions that the restaurant industry is in a crisis situation.

"This has also become a revenue issue. People haven't been able to open their restaurants. I'm talking operators with a large company across Canada have had to shut down lunches in about 10 of their locations because they just don't have the staff."

A Swiss Chalet location on Edinburgh Road in Guelph has had to close two days a week because of a staffing shortage. The owner of the restaurant spoke to GuelphToday.com about the situation.

In order to increase pay for the restaurant industry, McAdams said that 25 cents for every burger at a fast food location would be the increase that most people would see if the industry were to shift this way.

"We're talking about a less than 10 per cent increase to be able to put a dramatic increase to the people that are actually making food," he said. 

McAdams adds the restaurant industry is a hard industry to make a buck because the margins are slim. But, increasing prices are the best way to do it in his opinion. 

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