As some workers leave the restaurant industry in NL, what is to blame – and what is the solution?



This is the second installment of Help Wanted, a three-part series from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador that examines labor shortages in the province’s restaurant and food service industries.


When Stephanie Mauger moved to St. John’s for college, she fell in love with the service industry.

“I jumped and didn’t look back, and I committed 110%,” Mauger said.

Eight years of restaurant experience later, Mauger has looked back and doesn’t like everything she sees. It’s a prospect, she said, made possible by the pandemic.

“I don’t know if that has changed with COVID. On the contrary, it has been exposed with COVID,” she said.

What was exposed, she said, was the exploitation of workers, a lack of retention policies and professional development. “People are completely disposable in this industry, and I think most employers see it that way,” she said.

She has now left the industry and resumed her studies, and sees many others coming out of it as well. It comes amid a shortage of workers in Newfoundland and Labrador’s service industries, as businesses struggle to find staff following the onset of the pandemic.

It’s a complicated situation without a single explanation or clear solution, according to a labor relations expert.

“We’re holding onto the straws a bit,” said Gordon Cooke, professor of commerce at Memorial University.

One thing, for Cooke, is clear: “I just don’t see small employers as the culprits,” he said. They might offer only minimum wage or few perks due to greed, or it could be because they are hanging on to their businesses on a small budget, he said.

“I don’t think we will have precise data, even in a few years, on the precise situation of employers in this province and beyond, during this crisis,” he told CBC radio. Crosstalk.

This is a check for Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit of $ 2,000, a federal aid program at the start of the pandemic that has sparked backlash as labor shortages plague sectors like the restaurant industry. (Chris Helgren / Reuters)

Likewise, it is difficult for labor market analysis to determine whether pandemic relief programs, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, have really held people back from re-entering the workforce, a he declared.

For Cooke, any negative reaction from CERB oversimplifies long-standing issues that can keep people from working, such as public transport.

“You get a single parent living in [Conception Bay South] who gets a job opportunity in Galway, Stavanger or downtown, you can’t grab it, ”he said.

“He is not the only one responsible for CERB, because these problems have been going on for years and years and years. I just don’t think we are moving forward on this.”

“Thank God for the CERB”

Access to the advantage didn’t stop Audrey Brown from a second stab in her industry after the first pandemic shutdown.

“I was laid off for almost four months, I think, and thank goodness for CERB,” she said.

Brown had 20 years of restaurant experience in St. John’s when the pandemic hit and the job was gone. She had never relied on a government program before, she said, but her professional skills had not translated into savings in carrying it out.

“It’s a sad reality: I am approaching my forties, I have no savings and I am absolutely terrified for my future,” she said.

Brown returned to work when restaurants reopened in late spring 2020, but “the work was so insane” with a reduced workforce, she said.

After a second COVID-19 shutdown, she said, she “sort of sat down and said, ‘Is this really worth it? “”

“I really don’t think working 60 hours for days is worth what I’m paid, and the stress of it all,” she said.

She changed industries, got a job that had health benefits – “that was obvious” – and has no regrets.

Gordon Cooke, professor of commerce at Memorial University, says blaming CERB for labor shortages is an oversimplification. (Submitted by Gordon Cooke)

Fundamental inequalities, exposed

Brown’s story touches on “the key question of our time,” Cooke said. “It’s income inequality and wealth inequality. These are massive societal problems, and this is a problem.”

People work long hours and face enormous physical and emotional demands, with little feedback or security, but Cooke said tackling inequality shouldn’t fall directly on small businesses.

“I think it’s a wacky world we live in, in North America, where small employers are under pressure to offer these things, when I think it’s a right for people,” he said. -he declares. The government should provide health and dental care, he said, even if it means raising taxes on the highest income brackets.

“I just don’t want to squeeze small businesses. We have to have small businesses that have five employees, we want them to get to 10,” he said. Policy solutions must take into account the growing trend of shorter work weeks and the growing number of low-paying jobs, he said.

A more inclusive approach to recovery is needed, according to the director of End Homelessness St. John’s, a collaborative effort to tackle poverty in the city.

“When CERB was announced, it gave us a sigh of relief, to say, you know, our emergency shelter system won’t be inundated with people losing their homes,” said Doug Pawson, executive director of the organization. .

CERB has kept low-income people housed and fed, Pawson said, and should not be blamed as the only factor in the current shortage. What Pawson wants to see is a review of who works in the service, and how they can be helped.

“I think we need to understand that women and racialized groups are disproportionately those in these jobs,” he said. The economy must intertwine with social justice to find a way forward, he said.

“This crisis, if you wanted to call it that, it highlights how important it is to work together. And you can’t blame each other. You can’t point the finger at a federal agenda.”

Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. John’s, says CERB has helped many low-income people avoid poverty and homelessness. (Paul Daly / The Canadian Press)

An experience at $ 20 an hour

A restaurant has taken risks as it tries to find a way forward that balances the needs of its business and its employees.

When Mallard Cottage opened in 2013, owner and chef Todd Perrin said he wanted to pay his workers a living wage, instead of minimum wage and tips.

“Frankly, at the time, we didn’t have the courage to do it,” he said. He worried about how higher wages would force higher menu prices and felt customers would balk at the bottom line.

Fast forward to reopening the restaurant after the first wave of the pandemic, and a decision to offer a starting salary of $ 20.

“COVID was the catalyst for us because we felt like we were walking a tightrope whether or not we were going to survive or not,” Perrin said. “And I thought if we weren’t going to survive, then at least I was going to go out with my boots on, trying to do what I always wanted to do.”

Todd Perrin cuts a cooked lobster at his restaurant, Mallard Cottage, where he instituted a $ 20 hourly wage for waiters amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gary Locke / CBC)

Perrin led the idea through his staff, got their approval and made the switch. Now tips are accepted but not expected, he said, and his workers don’t rely on those extras to get by.

Yet, he said, “It has been very difficult. We have a little less staff than we would like, ”and the staff who are there are working hard.

Perrin hopes the model will work, but said the future is difficult to predict, both for Mallard Cottage and for its industry as a whole.

“The industry is going to have to change because it will not survive,” he said.

“The model that has existed will not survive, and COVID sheds light on the cracks that exist inside this industry across North America.”

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