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Squamish businesses wrestle with staffing shortages

Authorities contemplate how to solve the crunch, which threatens to stunt the reopening economy.

Anyone who’s driven down Highway 99 will have noticed a longtime Squamish landmark — the giant sign of Sunny Chibas, where staff often post chuckle-inducing one-liners.

However, those who’ve passed by the sign recently would’ve noticed that, instead of a quick-witted joke, the sign’s message announced reduced hours.

The restaurant is now only open from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., yet it still remains as popular as ever.

Lineups are frequently seen in and outside the restaurant.

So if business is still clearly booming, what could be causing the eatery to reduce its hours?

The answer, said one of the restaurant’s managing partners, is the lack of staff.

“Business is tough right now,” said Diana Frederickson.

She said that previously, the staff shortage forced the restaurant to close two days a week, but then the team opted to stay open every day, but with reduced hours.

Her team is stretched thin, and the dedicated staff who have stayed on during this time are being pushed to the absolute limit, Frederickson said.

She places much of the blame on one thing.

“It’s 100% because of the CERB,” said Frederickson.

“We get a lot of people who apply, they say, ‘Yeah we're totally going to come in for an interview.’ They have lots of kitchen and front-of-house experience, and most of the time they don't show up for the interview. Then they can show, ‘Hey, look, I went for the interview, they didn't hire me.’ So that’s all you have to do to keep getting the CERB, is [say,] ‘Hey I'm looking for work, but it's not happening.’”

While the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, ended last year, the federal government transitioned to a suite of COVID-19 relief benefits, including enhanced employment insurance and the Canada Recovery Benefit, or CRB, which ends on Sept. 25, 2021.

 Under the CRB, people ineligible for employment insurance who have lost work resulting from COVID-19 can receive up to $500 a week for 42 weeks.  

Frederickson said it’s made it harder than ever to keep staff around.

 “We've had to pay crazy wages to get people who have never worked in a kitchen, who have no experience, which is even harder on the business,” she said.  

Aside from that, Frederickson points at a lack of affordable housing as being the second culprit.

 It’s resulted in some staff having to live in Vancouver and commute to Squamish.  

She said she’s been trying to help them find places in town, but it’s been extremely challenging — and it increases the cost of doing business.

 “The rent is atrocious, and you kind of have to base what you're going to pay these people to come move to Squamish to pay the crazy rent,” Frederickson said.  

Front staff — some of whom are youth — make between $15.50 to $17 an hour, and kitchen workers make between $18 to $25.

Frederickson said the $18 is usually the bare minimum to make ends meet, unless they’re teens who aren’t paying bills.   

The lack of staff has forced the business to take a different path.

 Sunny Chibas is in the process of applying to hire foreign workers, Frederickson said.  

“It's not an easy process nor is it a cheap process,” she said.

 “We're actually in the middle of doing that. It pretty much is the only option.”  

Frederickson said that cancelling the government benefits that incentivize people to avoid work would help the situation. So would affordable housing.

 She floated the idea of having the municipality set aside a piece of land that can be developed as affordable staff accommodations.  

But, in the meantime, Frederickson asked for patience from those who may be frustrated by the slower service and reduced hours.

“I would really like people to stop writing bad reviews on slow service and the fact we're not open full hours,” she said. 

 “That's really hard. The staff are trying really hard to get things out faster, and they are working as hard as they can, and some people are new at the job. So people need to be a little bit kinder.”  

It’s not just food and restaurant businesses that are feeling the staffing crunch. 

 Not the cat’s meow for vets either

Over at Garibaldi Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Tom Honey tells a similar story.

 Honey said they’re short-staffed by around 10% to 20%.  

COVID benefits have been a factor, he noted, as well as housing problems.

 “The cost of housing is disparate to the amount of money that people can earn, and it’s very difficult for people to be able to afford to live in our community,” Honey said.  

What has the chamber been hearing?

Honey and Frederickson’s experience lines up with what the Squamish Chamber of Commerce has been hearing.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen increased labour challenges for various reasons,” wrote Louise Walker, the executive director of the local chamber, to The Chief.

“Anecdotally, this summer has proven to be exceptionally challenging for frontline positions and the hospitality sector. In addition to the smaller labour pool, the pandemic has been exhausting for many employees. As we reopen, it’s important to support our teams, invest in people, provide positive workplace culture and continued safe working environments.”  

The BC Chamber of Commerce has figures that show what kind of challenges businesses have experienced during the pandemic, she noted.

They’ve asked their members how they’re doing and found that 59% of respondents said access to labour has become harder, up from 41% in April.  

The cost of labour has increased, for 57% of respondents  up from 40% in April.

It was a greater challenge to find workers, with 55% responding that this was an issue, up from 40%.  

About 40% of the respondents also noted it’s been more difficult to find skilled labour, up from 32%.

Walker said the Squamish chamber will be surveying its members in an effort to gather data that will help identify a solution.   

In the meantime, the chamber manages a Facebook jobs board (a group under @squamishchamber) where it is free to advertise positions in Squamish.

She also encouraged businesses to reach out to WorkBC, which has advice on how to attract and retain employees, along with local recruitment agencies such as Squamish Personnel Solutions.  

What does the DBIA say?

The new president of the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association noted the timing of the end of COVID-19 restrictions made hiring a challenge.  

Adrian Blachut, who owns both Zephyr Cafe and 2 Chill Gelato, said businesses who need staff in the summer typically have to hire between March and May. 

However, because things were uncertain at that time, much of the hiring wasn’t done until late May onwards — and that’s when it became harder to find staff.  

Between his two establishments, he normally has about 50 staff. But as of now, it’s down to 35. 

In Blachut’s view, there aren’t going to be any quick fixes, at least for this summer season, which has only five to six weeks left.  

“In the future, economies adjust. I think that people will generally flatten to a mean. But I think this is a symptom of a crazy time to live. And I don't think there's currently anything we can do to incentivize and...help everyone out at the moment,” he said.

One long-term solution, Blachut said, would be to find ways to make Squamish more desirable during the traditional off-season, so there’s not a huge boom during the summer, followed by a quiet fall and winter.  

What is the District doing?

Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott said the municipality is working to address the issue with partner organizations.

“The Squamish Chamber of Commerce, [which] through District funding, has established a free grant writing service open to all businesses within Squamish to leverage funding opportunities available to local businesses, including those that are aimed at supporting a healthy labour force,” she wrote.

“Additionally, the District encourages employers to reach out to economic development staff who are available to advise local businesses on opportunities relating to the labour force including funding, programs, tools and data that can help inform their hiring and retention practices.”  

Elliott pointed to information on available workforce programs, funding and tools that can be found on the District’s website by visiting squamish.ca/economic-development.

She also noted that the municipality has been working on creating more affordable housing.   

This includes the Buckley Avenue affordable housing project, as well as measures to provide land, protect existing rental stock, and include purpose-built rental and affordable rental in rezonings where possible.

She said there are currently 79 new units at the development and building permit stages.   

The District is also developing a housing authority that can focus on building and managing more housing going forward, which the municipality intends to be operational in 2022.

Provincial view

On the provincial level, the province’s minister of jobs, Ravi Kahlon, issued a written statement to The Chief on the matter.

Kahlon said the province is focused on promoting the hiring of locals to grow the economy.  

“We recognize the serious challenges people face in finding and retaining employees in B.C.’s historically tight labour market,” he wrote. 

“Businesses tell us that when employees can’t find childcare and housing, they lose workers. We are taking action to make life more affordable for people in B.C. Over the next three years, we’ll be investing more than $2.5 billion in Childcare BC, our 10-year plan to deliver affordable, quality and inclusive childcare to B.C. families. We're making the largest investment in housing in B.C.'s history and working with partners to build 114,000 affordable homes over 10 years. Our economy will always depend on a growing skilled labour force, which is why we’re also investing heavily in skills training, so we can build a strong recovery for everyone.”  

From our MLA’s perspective

Squamish MLA Jordan Sturdy said that better data is one key component to finding a solution to the labour shortage.

At the moment, the federal government lumps the Sea to Sky’s employment data in with the rest of the Metro Vancouver area.  

This means that Squamish’s figures are lost in the mix.

“So how do you understand what the employment rate is?” said Sturdy. “I think it's important that we better understand the situation in the Sea to Sky.”  

For example, if there was a way to compare the number of job openings in Squamish to the number of people on employment insurance, it opens up a way to match employers with employees, he noted.

Another stumbling block is B.C.’s nominee program, Sturdy said.   

Under the program, foreign workers can receive permanent residency if they have desirable skills.

However, B.C. doesn’t assign high value to workers in the restaurant business. So it’s a better deal for those workers to leave B.C. and go to a province where they have a higher chance of getting permanent residency, Sturdy said.  

The federal government no longer ties foreign workers to the employers that have brought them over, so it’s within their right to move to a province where their skills are valued more, he said.

 MP’s perspective

However, Squamish MP Patrick Weiler said it’s not always that easy for foreign workers to move out of the province.

There are open work permits that allow foreign workers to choose a wide variety of employers from the get-go.   

However, Weiler said there are still people that come to Canada under closed work permits, which means they are tied to an employer. Under these cases, it’s only if they lose their job that they are released from their ties to a specific employer, and become free to move elsewhere.  

Weiler said the federal government is working to expand the list of essential workers to include service worker-type jobs, such as cashiers, to allow for more foreign workers to come fill the needs of employers.

Regarding getting Squamish-specific employment data, Weiler said that this was a goal that he and Sturdy have discussed for some time.  

However, that data is contained in the employment insurance IT systems, and during the pandemic, those systems were overwhelmed when issuing the COVID-19 benefits.

As a result, that effort has been delayed, but it’s still something that authorities are working on, he said.  

Finally, on the topic of people abusing the enhanced employment insurance and CRB measures, Weiler said this accounts for the minority of people.

He said there are spot checks and other ways the government guards against abuse. Weiler said employers who believe their prospective rehires are abusing the system can issue a record of employment. This can show authorities those people are being re-offered a job, but are staying unemployed by their own choice, which creates a red flag.  

There are also a number of other ways that employers can report people they believe are taking advantage of the benefits, Weiler said.

He also had a message for people abusing the system: “These benefits are for those that need them, and they're not there to be abused, and that employers right now do need them to come back to work to ensure that they will have a job to host them or to employ them down the road.”  

The MP also stated that addressing the worker shortage was a priority for him.

“I'm very much working on ways to — both in the short and medium-term — bring in more folks through immigration and deal with the labour market shortages that we're seeing right now,” he said.