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Sixth wave prompts renewed labour crunch in restaurants, retail and food processing

The food supply chain continues to feel pandemic pinch.
Staffing shortages sign at closed business due to lack of staff, employee shortage

After two years of on-and-off lockdowns, Rachel Reinders felt a renewed sense of hope last month as pandemic restrictions eased and spring dawned on the cusp of a new patio season.

But Reinders, who heads administration at the Lieutenant's Pump pub in Ottawa, had to scale back operations yet again, shutting down its lunchtime kitchen for a week in March because four cooks were on sick leave simultaneously.

"We're not fully staffed in the kitchen as it is, so we couldn't even really lose one. And we lost four,'' she said. "Those who were left behind worked double-time to pick up the slack.''

Businesses across Canada are struggling to cope with an apparent sixth wave of COVID-19, as staffing shortages hamper sectors from health care to hospitality and manufacturing; though the interruption remains more manageable than last winter's Omicron variant surge.

Dr. Kevin Smith, chief executive at the University Health Network in Toronto, said Wednesday that case numbers at its hospitals have shot up in the past few days, "so much so that staffing is challenging once again.''

In Montreal, parka maker Quartz Co. saw about 10 of its roughly 100 employees stay home with COVID-19 symptoms recently, though co-founder Francois-Xavier Robert says the absences were shorter than in January.

"It's just as many as we had in December,'' when the company shut down its flagship store in Montreal and a pair of pop-up storefronts there and in Toronto. ``Pretty much everyone that didn't have it over the winter had it in the last two weeks.

"Nobody got really sick. People were stopping for one or two days and then back to working,'' Robert added. "This time it's more easygoing.''

Nonetheless, retailers, gyms and event spaces are taking yet another hit as workers fall ill or steer clear of those sectors altogether, fearing further lockdowns, said Ryan Mallough, a senior director with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

"The impact is being felt across the board, in terms of absences,'' he said. "Some of that nervousness is starting to creep back into the mindset a little bit.''

Several Canadian provinces are bolstering their defences against the virus amid signs of a sixth wave. Quebec and Prince Edward Island extended their provincial mask mandates until later this month and Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia plan to expand access to fourth doses of the vaccine.

The food supply chain continues to feel pandemic pinch.

Before the onset of COVID-19, processing plants contended with a 10% labour shortage as the workforce aged. After peaking at 30% during the Omicron surge, the shortage remains at 25%, according to Food and Beverage Canada.

"Workforce issues in primary agriculture and food manufacturing are critical and need to be addressed urgently,'' Jennifer Wright, acting executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, said in a release Friday.

On Monday the federal government eased rules on temporary foreign workers in some areas of the economy desperately in need of employees, allowing employers in those industries to hire up to 30% of their workforce through the program.

But Ottawa has failed to address a growing backlog for incoming workers, said Stewart Skinner, a pork farmer near Listowel, Ont. Processing times at the Immigration Department have increased from between three and four months to more than a year, he said.

"It has not been a lot of fun and the frustration is more intense because it is not due to lack of demand for our product. It is supply chain disruption that is solely because we don't have enough labour to process the pork'' - a problem exacerbated by the sixth wave - Skinner said in an email.

However, labour snags for many retailers have largely stabilized.

"I don't think they're experiencing as significant a disruption as they were in January. The peak seems to have been then,'' said Retail Council of Canada spokesperson Michelle Wasylyshen.

Meanwhile some offices are moving ahead as planned with back-to-work policies, though these often involve hybrid arrangements, as at Desjardins Group. Infections among its 54,000 employees are on the rise, but not to the point of hurting its services, said spokesman Jean Benoit Turcotti.

National Bank also aims to ramp up to 50% capacity from mostly remote work for its 21,000 employees at the moment. It will move beyond that threshold, but only "following the momentum and the impact of this sixth wave,'' said spokesman Jean-Francois Cadieux.

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