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08/02/2022

`I don't know what I'm going to do': Niagara-on-the-Lake businesses can't find workers

One c-store manger says she's "screwed"
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Kathy Brown isn't sure what to do next.

The manager of the Avondale convenience store in Virgil simply can't find enough staff. And she's not alone.

Pandemic-era labour shortages have been afflicting businesses across Canada for months. And in Niagara-on-the-Lake, businesses are being hit harder than ever.

Many retailers and services in NOTL are struggling to hire workers and some are on the verge of panic.

"I don't know what I'm doing to do in two weeks. I won't have staff,'' said Brown.

She's worked for Avondale for 18 years and has been at the Virgil location for six. But has never experienced anything quite like this.

Currently, she has four staff but two are leaving for school in a few weeks.

She's had only one job applicant in the past few weeks and is worried she'll have to work 17-hour days or shut the store down early. Some days she's already had to do just that.

And since Brown is putting in extra hours, there's no work-life balance - and she hardly gets to see her grandchildren.

According to Statistics Canada, a shortage of labour is the leading obstacle expected by businesses across Canada. Many businesses are also finding it hard to recruit and keep staff, much more so than it was 12 months ago.

"Last summer it wasn't as hard. This summer, I find it very, very hard,'' said Brown.

"I'm screwed,'' she added.

Restaurants all over face similar headaches.

A manager at the Tim Hortons on Mississagua Street in Old Town said he only has nine employees and has lost six workers over the past few weeks.

Many of the workers, including the manager, are working upward of seven days in a row.

He had interviews scheduled with three prospective workers one day recently. None showed up.

So he's been forced to close the store at 6 p.m. on several occasions.

According to the 2022 Ontario Economic Report, over half of Ontario businesses are experiencing labour shortages and expect this to be a long-term problem.

The report, by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, heard from 1,513 organizations.

In the Hamilton-Niagara Region, 49 per cent said their organization is facing a worker shortage and about 61 per cent said their business sector is facing a shortage.

Restaurants and hotels seem to be hit the hardest. According to a report from StatsCan, nearly two-thirds of businesses in accommodation and food services expect labour shortages to be an obstacle over the next three months.

The NOTL Golf Club restaurant is among those. But it's a chronic problem, with no end in sight.

Many businesses in Niagara-on-the-Lake say they have no applicants. And some say they're losing out on employees who have no transportation to and from work.

"We also don't have a scheduled public transit system,'' said Minerva Ward, president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and Tourism NOTL.

"We have an on-demand transit system that people use, but not to the extent that they would use if they had a schedule,''

In June, the unemployment rate in Canada fell to 4.9%, a record low. In the Niagara region, unemployment sank to 4.3%, down from 5.5% in May.

According to the Niagara Workforce Planning Board, Niagara-on-the-Lake had a total of 453 job postings in May, with 52 postings in the retail sector, followed by food services.

"Anybody who wants a job has a job. So that's the challenge we're facing across the country,'' said Ward.

Whether it's the tourism sector, Pearson airport or federal passport offices, literally every sector is feeling the pinch.

"The federal government is offering basically signing bonuses. (They are offering) all kinds of federal government benefits to come work for them. So it's a very, very, very competitive labour market,'' said Ward.

Niagara Health, which runs the region's hospitals, has been dealing with extreme staffing shortages for months. Its website posted a statement on July 22 warning people that longer wait times will continue amid the staffing crisis.

Many shops in Niagara-on-the-Lake have had hiring signs in their windows for weeks, but no luck.

"It's hard. We're just not getting anybody applying,'' said John Koldenhof, owner of Maple Leaf Fudge on Queen Street.

Some, like Rocky Mtn Chocolate, said it's a struggle to find mature, responsible employees.

"Some people come in who just want the job, but don't have a written resume,'' said Kelly Culp, manager at Rocky Mtn Chocolate on Queen Street.

"It's an employees' world rather than an employers' world,'' she added.

Many businesses are at a loss, wondering what they're going to do next. With fewer employees, current staff have to work twice as hard, they say.

Managers are working extra-long days - and all of this increases the risk of burnout.

"People who are showing up for work have to do more than their fair share, so there's a risk of burnout,'' said Ward.

Paying higher wages alone is not a solution, she said.

More money will contribute to higher inflation across the country, and if there's no pool of workers, paying more is not a solution, she added.

Coupled with a record low unemployment rate, Canada also has a record high inflation rate. Last month, inflation hit 8.1 per cent, the highest it's been in 39 years.

Bringing more staff into the country is a possible solution, Ward said.

Since Canada has a declining birthrate, immigration can help fuel Canada's economy. As of July, the government allowed international graduates with expiring temporary status to stay longer.

And in the first quarter of 2022, Canada accepted over 113,000 new permanent residents.

But many businesses want - and need - solutions now.

Because in a few weeks, if managers like Brown can't find more people, they might have no choice but to curtail operations or risk exhaustion by working more and longer days.

Either way, Brown and many others can't win.

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