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Worker shortage leaves Vancouver Island business owners scrambling

Lack on interest in customer service jobs about to take another hit with back-to-school
It’s all hands on deck to serve customers for Public Market in Chemainus owner/operator Patricia Berry and employee Leah Howard. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Vancouver Island business owners are being forced to work longer hours themselves, juggle schedules and close at different times on short notice due to an extreme labour shortage.

There’s jobs aplenty, and not enough people to fill them.

“I could offer five people full-time work,” said Patricia Berry, owner-operator of The Public Market in Chemainus.

Same for Julie Stevens of Canteen on the Green at the Mount Brenton Golf Course and Maple Lane Catering, who says she could easily add six more people to her staff.

Others mainly in the restaurant and hospitality field need more employees, but many industries are in the same boat. The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, with summer students who have filled some major gaps on the brink of returning to school.

“Hard-working students helped keep doors open in summer,” said Berry. “Come September, I lose everybody. I have no employees. The market is going to be me and some after-school kids.”

“It’s life or death for businesses right now. Some places are just folding because of it.”

With their locations open seven days a week, it’s up to owners like Berry and Stevens to meet the needs of customers. 

“For me, I’m working seven days a week, early mornings, late nights to get the work done because we don’t have enough people,” said Stevens. “There’s nobody applying.

“It’s very difficult there’s not enough workers. You can only work the current staff you have so many hours and it’s left up to me. I’m getting pretty tired.”

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“The labour shortage has been very real for many of our local businesses,” explained Krystal Adams, executive director of the Chemainus Business Improvement Association.

“They have done all sorts of recruiting efforts including some spending hundreds on recruiting websites like Indeed for many months. Some businesses have had to curtail hours or days because of this and many cannot take in the demand of customers that they have. Currently, we have jobs for many positions from managers to chefs, but mostly servers are highly-needed in the town and region.

“There are businesses in the Cowichan Valley on the brink of collapse because they are not taking days off or are trying to operate filling shifts within the business as well as run it and for some that is just not sustainable.”

“This isn’t just a town specific challenge, we have had many discussions from a regional level with many groups and none of us have any good solutions.”

There’s a lot more to the problem that many people might not know about.

“The labour shortage is beyond devastating and caused by a multitude of reasons – not just COVID,” explained Emily Weeks, managing director of the Chemainus & District Chamber of Commerce..

One factor is the Canada Recovery Benefit due to expire on Sept. 25 has been extended through to the end of October. In short, there hasn’t been a lot of incentive for people collecting the benefit to return to work until it’s discontinued.

“Due to COVID, most people working in the tourism, hospitality and food and beverage industry were laid off, making the entire sector seem unstable and less attractive,” noted Weeks. “COVID has made it more achievable to work for an organization that allows you to work from home or with a flexible hybrid model, meaning you can now live and travel anywhere in the world and still have a job.”

Other factors communities face include: a lack of affordable housing and convenient public transportation; a cost of living incompatible with the wages offered; less foreign nationals coming in on working visas; more retirees; and workers fed up with the abuse that can be received in the customer service industry.

“Now things are re-opening, tourists are coming and there’s no staff to serve them at a time when our businesses need this long-anticipated influx in customers to be able to recover,” Weeks said. “Businesses are experiencing sporadic closures, less offerings and delayed service times due to this staffing crisis, which is in turn causing frustration with tourists and pain points in the visitor experience.”

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Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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