Ordering a meal is different in 2022 than it was in 2019—customers might be wearing a mask, speaking through Plexiglas, or ordering off a QR-code menu—but the experience has changed behind the counter too.
Jen Foster says it's evident the service industry has changed. “When I started to serve it was so fun, and [there] was too much staff—so many people wanted a serving job. I made so many friends,” she says. “Now, it’s just not the same.”
That much is clear.
Since March 2020, restaurants and bars have had to readjust, re-establish, and, at least three times, close. According to the Bank of Canada’s last quarterly report, more than a third of Canada’s businesses are suffering from a labour shortage.
It appears that COVID-19 posed not only a threat to people’s lives, but also a threat to some people’s livelihoods.
After the first wave steadied, service workers were being called back to work in May 2020; many, like Foster, didn’t return. “I was trying to start my business and I took the opportunity to work on that,” she says.
This is the story for many employees laid off during the pandemic—a realization that the service industry is not for them, and they were disillusioned with the follies of the job. For those who also manned the front lines in more precarious jobs, the labour shortage empowered them to utilize their bargaining power, and demand more for their work. Now, Victoria service operators have responded.
While safeguards to protect customers from COVID-19 have been instituted widely, safeguards to protect service workers from other crises—housing, inflation, and health—aren’t. The longer the labour shortage has lasted, the clearer the picture has become of why it's happened: service workers are fed up with how the industry operates.
Sign of the times
The widespread labour shortage spoken of now really began in the summer of 2020. When small and big businesses, struggling to find staff, began offering incentives to attract workers—like higher wages and bonuses—to many workers the message was that employees could be paid more, but up until then, they just hadn’t been.
In 2021, to mitigate losses, the federal government offered the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program to pay wages and rent subsidies of up to 75% to hotels, tour operators, travel agencies, and restaurants. A separate Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program provided subsidies of up to 50% for other businesses that faced deep losses.
While a relaxation of public health measures, and investments from federal recovery programs, were supposed to allow these sectors to increase their employment substantially, workers weren’t showing up to hand in their resumes.
Ian Tostenson, CEO of BC’s Restaurant and Food Services Association, tells Capital Daily the industry has lost about 20% of its workforce, and around 3,000 BC restaurants have closed down since March 2020. Initially, Canadians had ideas on why the labour shortage was happening. In the fall, about 43% of Canadians thought government programs, like CERB and its stricter successor, the CRB, were at the root of it.
But in the food service industry, the labour shortage particularly affected kitchens, which had already been short workers before the pandemic, some operators have begun offering better pay to attract workers. One restaurant in Vancouver made headlines after it advertised a full-time dishwashing position—which typically makes minimum wage—at a $50,000 salary.
This was a sign of the times, and evidence that the food service labour shortage was about more than a surplus of jobs and a limited number of people; it was about working conditions.
“I was just pretty over it, in terms of the lack of staff, the lack of resources, and humans just being humans during a pandemic,” Foster said. “I was just burnt out.”
Some employees returned, like Foster did for a month, and they were frustrated that certains aspects of the job were gone, like flexible hours, and the casual atmosphere that had previously permeated the industry. Now, employees add the risk of being on the frontlines of a public health emergency, and are expected to give the same output. To add to that, the service industry had a reckoning last year, where an industry-wide conversation around sexual assault and harassment called for better workplace safety policies.
Employees left in droves.
UVic assistant professor of sociology Anelyse Weiler researches workers across industries, and she said the pandemic has intensified inequity, racism, and sexism in the workforce, particularly in poorly paid, unprotected, and insecure work environments like hospitality. “What is commonly referred to as a labour shortage is really a shortage of employers who are offering a living wage and appealing working conditions,” Weiler says.
The labour shortage has prompted employers to change their labour practices, and those in Victoria that have adapted are surviving it.
More than minimum wage
Stephen Quigley, co-owner of tapas restaurant Chorizo & Co., says he has maintained his staff throughout the ups and downs of a pandemic. He says he credits it in part due to the fact Chorizo & Co. offers full-time employees benefits and more than minimum wage.
“You shouldn’t have to make bare bones and struggle to survive, it should be treated like a real career,” Quigley says. “It’s only fair that the industry pulls up their socks a little.”
Chorizo & Co. is a fairly small restaurant with a smaller staff, but bigger restaurants have applied that same philosophy and been successful too.
Green Cuisine, a vegan restaurant that employs more than 20 people, maintains their staff by being competitive. “I don't want anybody leaving because they can get more money somewhere else,” says owner Andy Cunningham.
Cunningham tells Capital Daily his main competition is the construction industry; there, starting wages are $7 more per hour. While Cunningham wouldn’t disclose his employees’ wages, he says his workers can make up to $25 per hour with tips.
Now, without any government wage subsidies, and a nearly 6% increase in food costs last year, Cunningham hopes customers can understand that paying his employees more also means they might have to spend more at the table.
“If people seem to accept that eating out is going to cost a bit more these days. I think the price increases can go into paying employees better,” he says.
Luckily, Cunningham says he has a dedicated clientele, but that ideal can’t be met for every small business in Victoria. Some small businesses say they’ll even struggle with the $0.45 minimum wage increase in June.
But while Chorizo & Co. and Green Cuisine may offer different menus, they offer the same example for others—sustainable businesses that offer a livable wage in a city where it counts.
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What’s a livable wage?
According to Living Wage for Families BC, a living wage calls on employers to meet a higher standard for their both staff and major contractors, to ensure that wages reflect the true costs of living in a community, and for parents to earn what they need to support their families. In Victoria, the livable wage is $20.46 an hour—over $11,000 more per year than BC’s current minimum wage.
While a living wage can support a family’s basic needs, it still doesn’t cover what so many Canadians struggle with: debt, loans, or other interest payments. This means that even employees making a liveable wage, don’t make enough to put away savings for home ownership, retirement, or children’s university education. According to a 2021 MNP consumer debt index report, more than half (53%) of Canadians say they are $200 or less from not being able to meet all of their bills and debt obligations each month.
Despite BC’s minimum wage, tied to inflation, being raised to $15.65 on June 1, for more than half of Canadians, it’s not enough.
For service workers, the expectation in the sector was that they’ll make minimum wage and no benefits, with only under-the-table tips to make up the shortfall. But with employees demanding more for their labour, the businesses that once relied on more precarious work practices aren’t surviving.
Last July, staff at Wild Cafe & Bistro refused to work until their demands were met. According to the employees, the owner was neglecting her duties—they were not being paid on time, the equipment at the cafe was broken, and there weren't enough workers. The owner, Marla Donaldson, refuted the claims.
But it wasn't the first time Wild Cafe & Bistro was accused of not paying its employees. In 2015, a former employee won a claim after they weren’t compensated financially for their work. Wild Cafe & Bistro closed last September.
The labour shortage has also affected longstanding businesses in Victoria too.
Last May, the White Spot at Douglas Street and Caledonia Avenue closed after 50 years in business. In January, Boston Pizza on Hillside closed after 25 years.
In a written statement taped to the inside of Boston Pizza’s front door, franchise owner Jeremy Dewey cited the pandemic, ongoing restrictions, staffing issues, and cost of living increases as the primary reasons the restaurant closed up.
“We have tried to navigate through every wave of this global pandemic, public health orders, staff shortages and overall increases in the cost of living … with no success,” Dewey said in the letter.
Capital Daily reached out to Dewey for comment but he did not respond. A former cook at a Boston Pizza location in Edmonton, Alberta, said it’s not surprising that a franchise would struggle in these conditions—the restaurant is an enterprise based on young service workers desperate for work and experience.
“We'll all still work with no benefits,” Levi Gogerla says. “I never had the luxury to quit; I always [had] rent and loan payments.”
While some service workers, like Foster, have the means to quit, many, like Gogerla, don’t have the option to pivot careers.
When the pandemic hit, the BC hotel industry laid off 50,000 hotel workers, over 60% of whom were women, many of them racialized. Prior to the pandemic, hotel workers were winning in strides with strikes at a number of hotels in downtown Vancouver in 2019. It resulted in wage increases, better job security, and new protections against sexual harassment.
But, when corporate hotels such as Coast Bastion or Hilton began rehiring employees when pandemic restrictions began to lift, instead of recalling their laid off staff, they hired new employees while allegedly refusing to hire the newly unionized workers. Capital Daily reached out to Coast Bastion Nanaimo, who declined to comment.
“Coast Bastion is taking advantage of COVID-19 and turned their backs on us. I’m getting groceries at a food bank and struggling to pay my mortgage. I’m devastated. I don’t want to lose my career,” said Marcia Little, a server of 13 years at Coast Bastion Hotel in Nanaimo.
Now, hotel workers have partnered with Unite Here Local 40—a BC labour union—to create BC’s Unequal Women campaign. Together, they are pressuring hotels to bring fired workers back, and, in another instance, assisting a member in their class action lawsuit against Pan Pacific hotel in Vancouver. The lawsuit alleges hotel employees were fired in "batches" to avoid triggering employment laws.
This is one of many labour movements that have risen amid the pandemic.
Vancouver Island Regional Library librarians began rotating strikes on March 9 after bargaining for a new contract broke down. Their demands included wage increases and “safe, healthy workplaces” amid complaints of violence and mental health impacts during the pandemic.
The conversation about labour practices has become more serious online too, most notably on r/antiwork, a popular Reddit group with close to two million followers. Previously, a place to complain about your boss through memes, in late 2020, the group gained notoriety as a global hub to discuss unfair labour practices.
What was once a taboo subject—wages, salaries, and benefits—is now a dialogue between lower wage workers over unfair compensation, treatment, and precarity.
While Foster has gone back again to work in the service industry, she says it’s mostly to supplement an income while she looks for another job.
“[The pandemic] was kind of this reality check of like, okay, maybe I need to move on to something else—whether that's a government job, or going back to school,” she says. As more restrictions lift, restaurants and coffee shops are starting to look a lot like they did in 2019; but, behind the counter, things have changed. As the masks come off, so too does the stereotype of a struggling service worker—and the industry is fighting back. Foster hopes the momentum can continue. “I don't think it can ever go back to the way it was, that's for sure,” she says. “But maybe after a year or two of no masks and [more] tourism, who knows, it might change back again.”
Correction on April 5 at 12:30pm: A previous version of this article said a living wage includes consideration of things like debt and interest payments. It does not.