Double-double trouble in the workforce


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One of the most peculiar encounters of our summer has been at a Tim Hortons outlet in Wawa, Ont., of all places. It confirmed for us the gravity of the labour shortage in Canada’s retail sector.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2022 (226 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One of the most peculiar encounters of our summer has been at a Tim Hortons outlet in Wawa, Ont., of all places. It confirmed for us the gravity of the labour shortage in Canada’s retail sector.

My wife and I had overnighted in a motel in this town of 3,000 people in the wilderness of northern Ontario and, before resuming our journey in the morning, we walked to a nearby Hortons, where about eight vehicles waited in line at a drive-thru.

We tried to enter the restaurant for coffee but a woman wearing a badge that said “manager” blocked the entrance.

“Sorry, no indoor service. We can’t hire enough staff to work the counter,” she said. “You can use the drive-thru.”

“But we’re on foot,” I pointed out.

“That’s OK, that’s how we do it now. Just walk on over, get in line with those cars and wait your turn.”

We were surprised. We had never heard of a restaurant drive-thru that was also a walk-through. Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Our road trip had provided lots of other examples of the serious shortage of staff willing to work in businesses.

We drove 2,500 kilometres along the north shore of Lake Superior and through southern Ontario to attend a wedding in Kingston, Ont. We know the route well, and noticed significant changes since we had last travelled it, which was before the pandemic.

Many motels and restaurants were now closed, even though it was height of tourist season. The route abounded with “Help wanted” signs outside retail establishments in towns as small as Kenora and Kakabeka Falls, and cities as large as Toronto.

Of restaurants that remained open, some bore signs that explained reduced hours, such as: “Only open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., can’t get staff. Sorry for inconvenience.” The owner of a motel that flashed a “No Vacancy” sign even though some rooms remained unbooked told us she lacked sufficient cleaning and maintenance staff to open all rooms.

Such first-hand observations would seem to confirm economic reports that many Canadian businesses can’t get enough staff to meet customer demand. Statistics Canada reported July 28 that there were 1,005,700 unfilled positions at the beginning of May, 42 per cent higher than a year ago.

Summer students traditionally fill available vacancies during July and August, but not this summer. According to StatCan, the construction and manufacturing sectors are having a difficult time recruiting workers, followed closely by hotels, restaurants and bars.

Manitoba knows the predicament all too well. Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel can’t offer its traditional room service because it can’t hire adequate staff. It employed 350 workers in early 2020, but it’s now down to 200.

The Black Bear Golf Club in Lac du Bonnet has reduced its clubhouse hours, closing at 4 p.m. Even though they’re offering $18 an hour, which is $6 above Manitoba’s minimum wage, its owners can’t hire enough workers to resume regular hours.

The Victoria Inn in Winnipeg isn’t cleaning visitors’ rooms, unless asked, also because of a shortage of staff.

Elkhorn Resort near Riding Mountain National Park lacks about 15 workers to maintain its usual standard of service. It’s had to limit restaurant hours and postpone the opening of a new outdoor patio.

So, where are the workers? Why is it so hard to hire people to serve customers?

Experts who study such matters say the pandemic seems to have changed the way people think about work. People are more choosy. They might be willing to accept a position if they can work from home, but they’re reluctant to work face-to-face with the public and potentially be exposed to the latest COVID-19 variation.

Low wages are also a big factor. Manitoba’s minimum wage will increase on Oct. 1 from $11.95 to $12.35, but such a stipend remains inadequate at a time when the cost of essentials such as food and fuel are soaring.

Potential solutions to the labour shortage include welcoming more foreign workers, a traditional Manitoba response. Other provinces have the same idea, however, and some are more aggressive than Manitoba. Ontario has given its regulatory colleges for nurses and doctors a two-week deadline to develop plans to more quickly register internationally educated health-care professionals “as expeditiously as possible.”

Another possible solution to the shortfall of staff is to replace humans with automation. One Winnipeg eatery, Hong Du Kkae on Pembina Highway, already has a working robot that delivers food and drinks to tables.

If the Tim Hortons outlet in Wawa, Ont., can’t hire counter staff, perhaps robots can serve the double-doubles. Anything is better than making coffee-craving customers line up on foot among the vehicles at a drive-thru.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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