As Canadians get ready to storm the patios of freshly-opened restaurants across Ontario, some of the regular staff they once looked forward to seeing won’t be there to greet them.
This is largely due to the COVID-19 restrictions that temporarily shut restaurant doors forced a lot of people out of work — and some of them aren’t coming back.
“Some people, when they started calling staff back, are finding 50 to 60 per cent of their staff has left the industry… they’ve taken jobs elsewhere,” said James Rilett, vice president for the Ontario region at Restaurants Canada.
“That’s been a big hit to a lot of people, because it’s really valuable employees that have made the tough decision to move on. So there’s going to be some scrambling, trying to find staff and recruiting from different sources than than typically.”
Employment in the food services industry was almost 30 per cent below its pre-COVID levels in the month of May, according to Statistics Canada. The industry also accounted for almost two-thirds of the overall employment decline since February 2020.
On top of that, at least 45 per cent of foodservice businesses have been consistently losing money since reopening at reduced capacity last year, according to Restaurants Canada, the national not-for-profit association representing Canada’s foodservice industry.
About 72 per cent of businesses still operating at a loss expect they’ll need “at least a year” to return to profitability, the association said.
For the servers, hosts and line cooks that staff these businesses, the extended period of uncertainty has pushed some of them out of the industry for good.
“Each lockdown that we’ve had, or each limitation on service, you have to let some folks go and put them on leave,” said Sarah Chown, managing partner of downtown Ottawa’s Métropolitain Brasserie.
“And then when everybody needs to be recalled, there’s generally a few that have fallen off and have gone and gotten jobs elsewhere, or moved away — and that’s a problem that we’re seeing across the board across all the way across the province.”
Daniel Lew was one of those servers. He had worked at a Toronto Banquet hall for almost five years — but when the pandemic hit, it gave him the push he needed to finally register for an online software engineering course he had been eyeing.
Completing that course helped him get a foot in the door of a new industry, and now he’s working in the tech sector.
“I wouldn’t go back to serving,” Lew said.
“The majority of people that I know from work ended up making very similar decisions — I don’t know many people that are going back.”
With so many veteran employees leaving the restaurants, owners are having to bring on new hires to replace them. But that process presents its own challenges, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
“There’s there’s certainly not people coming in and dropping resumes off,” said Chown.
She said the majority of the applications she gets now come through over email, which creates obstacles for lower-income Canadians or younger Canadians — the same groups that often apply for positions washing dishes or bussing tables.
“Maybe they don’t have access to their own personal computer. So it makes applying for a job for them a lot more difficult as well,” Chown said.
Rilett added that during the pandemic, far fewer teenagers have started seeking out their first jobs. What was once a major applicant pool for restaurant owners has shrunk down significantly, according to Rilett.
“So where people would start to find jobs at 16, they may…wait until they’re out of the university to get jobs. So that’s a whole cohort of people that just weren’t available to us anymore,” he said.
While the servers aren’t all coming back, the customers are.
Chown said she’s bracing for the upcoming weekend at her restaurant to be similar to Canada Day, in terms of the demand for seating — in other words, unrelentingly busy.
And with many of their most experienced workers gone, some of the staff will be waiting tables at Ontario’s restaurants for the very first time.
“You can’t do any live training with patrons (during lockdowns). So when we reopen, for instance, today, we’ll have a number of new folks training throughout the weekend,” said Chown.
“It’s going to be full-bore, they’re going to sort of have their feet to the fire. You hope that they grab on really quickly and are able to be really fast learners, but that’s also really hard, given that everybody has been off work for so long.”
For those Canadians thinking of hitting a patio in the near future, Chown offered a message: “Be patient, have a few drinks and try not to be in a rush,” she said.
As for Lew, he’s looking forward to drinking a beer on a patio Friday night — instead of serving it.
“It makes it a lot easier to enjoy those things, when you’re on the other side,” he said.
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