Labour Pains: Restaurants

Did you catch local restaurateur Danny Ellis’ bellyaching tour of local media outlets this summer? Ellis, who operates four CBRM eateries (two of which — the Portside on the Sydney waterfront and the Boardwalk Tap Room & Eatery in what used to be the meeting room in the Civic Centre — are located on properties he leases from CBRM) found reporters at the CBC and the Cape Breton Post receptive to his sad tale.

The CBC story, dated August 10, carried the headline, “Struggling with staff shortages, Cape Breton restaurants face tough decisions.” (Sub head: “At least 1 restaurant on the island was forced to close Saturday due to a shortage of workers.” I like the “at least.”)

A restaurateur in Sydney, N.S., says he’s mulled over the possibility of closing one of his restaurants for a day a week due to a shortage of hospitality workers.

“Right now, it’s something that we’re toying with,” said Danny Ellis, who owns and operates four eateries in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

After the pandemic forced restaurants to lay off their employees, Ellis said many of those workers took the time to reconsider their career paths, while others remain off work as they collect employment insurance benefits.

Danny Ellis

Danny Ellis, possibly just after or just before washing dishes. (CBC Photo)

Not to be outdone, the Cape Breton Post wrote the same story on August 29, and their reporter also sought out Ellis for comment. This time the purveyor of food and drink was even more forthcoming:

“A lot of this is about people leaving the industry after getting into the unemployment program where they qualified with low hours,” said [Danny] Ellis.

“If you are on the lower end of the wage scale, why would you come to work for $560 per week when you can sit home and get $500 for doing nothing?”

Poor Ellis, the Post explained, was reduced to washing his own dishes.

The Post also spoke to Ardon Mofford, founder, owner and head chef at Governor’s Pub and Eatery in Sydney, who agreed with Ellis but had the sense to be less obnoxious about it:

Mofford said he fully endorsed government programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, but added that worker shortages have become an unexpected side-effect of supports like the CERB.

“The government did its thing to help us through a very tough time, but it came back to nip the industry in the butt and has really exposed the vulnerability of the hospitality business,” said Mofford.

I’ve made this point before but it bears repeating: if you collected CERB for a year at $500 a week, you earned $24,000. That’s the princely sum that has knocked the restaurant industry for a loop.

But fear not, restaurant owners have solutions — immigration, government support and temporary foreign workers. Here, for example, are the demands of the industry group Restaurants Canada:

  • Support for the expansion of impactful labour pilot programs, such as the Atlantic Immigration Program and Alberta Foodservice Labour Connections.
  • An increase in federal funding to ensure efficient and effective processing of immigration applications by reducing wait times, administrative burdens, and increasing information-sharing between sponsors.
  • An extension of work visas for a full year and suspension of fees until 2022.
  • The addition of a foodservice stream into the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to address seasonal and long-term labour shortages, as well as a redesign of the national occupational classification structure to broaden the categories of positions that foodservice employers can use the TFWP to help fill, as well as a lower administrative burden on small businesses who use the TFWP.

Why raise wages when you can just flood the labor pool with people willing to work for less?


Grueling conditions

As I read these stories, I was reminded of an episode of the (excellent) Citations Needed podcast I’d listened to back in April. Hosts Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi examined what they called “The Labour Shortage Ruse” (sub head: “How Capital Invents Staffing Crises to Bust Unions and Depress Wages”) taking aim both at industry groups claiming to be victims of such shortages and — because it’s a US-based podcast focused on “the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit” — at American media outlets who “unquestionably repeat” labor shortage claims without ever bothering to ask “why they’re reporting on the same supposed labor shortage every year for the past thirty years.”

In particular, I remembered what their guest, Kevin Cashman, a senior associate at Center for Economic and Policy Research, had to say about such “shortages” in the restaurant industry:

It’s a lot easier to demonize people and say, ‘Well, you know, you should be taking this job instead of taking unemployment,’ you know, we should…have employers that are paying wages that incorporate all the requirements of the job. I don’t know many people who write these stories that would want to go be a line cook in a restaurant if that was the only job they had available to them during a pandemic because it’s just not worth the risk to their health.

He could have been quoting Danny Ellis, who seems to assume that all his former dishwashers spent 2020 on their couches.

It was up to Brett Bundale of the Canadian Press to set the record straight, which she did on August 25, under the headline, “Low wages, instability to blame for restaurant industry labour shortage, workers say” (sub head: Workers say low wages and gruelling conditions are the biggest hiring obstacles”) — although first, she gave Danny Ellis yet more air time:

“We lost a lot of the untrained, lower-wage workers,” said Danny Ellis, the owner and operator of four restaurants in Cape Breton, a region with an unemployment rate of 12.6 per cent, compared to 8.7 per cent for Nova Scotia as a whole.

“I can’t find dishwashers,” he said. “Especially for guys in that position, why would they come back when they’re paid to sit at home?”

(Why does he think he’s the only motivated person in Cape Breton? Do you know anyone who took CERB and “sat at home?” I honestly don’t.)

Fortunately, Bundale balanced Ellis’ comments with those of Chantelle Comeau, a 25-year veteran of the restaurant industry, who said:

It’s hot. It’s stressful. The hours are long and the pay is awful. People are literally working to the point of burnout for pennies above minimum wage.

Comeau, who lost her job at the beginning of the pandemic, applied for a job at a Tim Hortons where she’d worked as a teenager and found she would have taken home less than she did 20 years earlier because “people don’t tip anymore” — everyone pays electronically.


Missing piece

Bundale also spoke to David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), who pointed to “recent statistics” that showed:

…wages in the restaurant industry have remained relatively flat, while the workload in terms of enhanced cleaning and health and safety measures has increased…

He says the solution to finding more workers is often increasing wages.

“The proviso to any complaint about a labour shortage is there’s a shortage — at the wage I’m willing to pay,” Macdonald said. “That’s the piece that’s always missing.”

I know what many restaurant owners will say to that (not all, some of you are good employers and I salute you!) they’ll say, “We can’t afford to pay any more. Our margins are razor thin. We barely make any money ourselves.”

But I don’t find those answers satisfactory.

Imagine the same owners trying similar arguments with suppliers — “I can’t afford to pay what you’re charging for that industrial gas range/box of meat/electricity. I’m afraid you’ll have to accept less. I am the backbone of the economy, you know.”

No supplier would be expected to cut owners a deal because their margins were thin — why are workers?


Featured image: Waitress taking order by photo by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons