The PEI hospitality industry struggles to find staff as tourism booms

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As tourism is in full swing in Prince Edward Island for the first time since 2019, operators say they are struggling to find the staff they need to operate smoothly near maximum capacity .

Some say they have also discovered that the employment landscape has passed from pre-pandemic days, making staff harder to find.

“During the pandemic, people left our industry, and some moved on,” said Kevin Murphy, President and CEO of Murphy Hospitality Group. The group’s website says it operates 16 dining establishments, two boutique hotels and the Prince Edward Island Brewing Company.

Another reason why workers are hard to find, according to Murphy, is “that there are currently many programs with federal assistance that are likely to deter people from re-entering the workforce.”

After 16 months of pandemic restrictions on visitors to Prince Edward Island, places like Peake’s Quay in Charlottetown are teeming with businesses and shops and restaurants are looking for more staff. (Carolyn Ryan / CBC)

At the start of the pandemic, the federal government launched the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (ECP), providing $ 2,000 per month to Canadians whose jobs had been affected by shutdown measures designed to prevent the spread of the disease. coronavirus.

The ECP has moved to the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRP) – and last month the federal government extended the eligibility period for the CRP until October 23.

No summer hiring since 2019

Ahead of the pandemic, Murphy said his company would normally have up to 500 employees on duty during the off-season, increasing that number to 800 with a hiring period each spring to prepare for the coming summer.

He said the pandemic had left only 350 employees in place at the lowest point, and over the past two seasons his company has failed to make its normal summer hires.

The Murphy Group is now operating with around 450 employees, leaving its restaurants and other businesses short-staffed – and in some cases, having to reduce their hours of operation.

The Employment Insurance section of the Government of Canada’s website is displayed on a laptop on April 4, 2020. COVID-19 pandemic assistance benefits were recently extended until the end of October. (Jesse Johnston / The Canadian Press)

Murphy said the industry was unsure of what to expect this summer as PEI. began to reopen to the rest of Canada by not requiring fully vaccinated people to self-isolate from July 18. Operators were certainly not prepared for the speed with which travelers were flocking to the island. .

“What happened was we went from zero to 60, let’s call it, in 10 days in our industry,” Murphy said, “and that put tremendous stress on the operations that… were working. under reduced manpower and now they’re trying to recruit staff and they can’t find staff. “

Murphy said the most acute shortage is for staff to clean hotel rooms. He said some hotels have had to set aside parts of their rooms, not offering them for reservations because they don’t have the staff to clean them.

Senior management cleaning rooms

At the Holman Grand Hotel in Charlottetown, they operate at full capacity on weekends, but to do so, they had to pressure senior management at parent company Dyne Holdings to clean the rooms.

“Our top management got involved in every way they could, stripping rooms, that sort of thing, getting the family to help out for a day here and a day there,” said the president of Dyne Holdings, John Cudmore.

Cudmore said business has returned faster than his company expected after the July 18 reopening date.

It’s not just the cleaners. He said a shortage of kitchen staff has forced his business to limit table reservations at the Holman Grand’s restaurant, especially on rainy days when vacationing families tend to abandon the beaches of PEI. -Prince Edward to spend the day in Charlottetown.

Cudmore said they are cutting their budgets “in the interest of quality for the clients we have and to keep our team organized and ready to prepare.”

Not a labor shortage – a “wage shortage”

Some say the problem is not so much a shortage of workers. It’s “a shortage of wages,” said Jillian Kilfoil, executive director of Women’s Network PEI

“The pandemic and government programs to support Canadians during a global pandemic do not discourage work, but rather highlight the poor working conditions that were normalized before the pandemic,” she said.

“Employers need to do better in terms of creating supportive workplaces that offer decent wages and working conditions. ”

Dyne Holdings chairman John Cudmore says senior executives have been helping cleanrooms at the Holman Grand in Charlottetown in recent weeks because the company has not been able to hire enough workers. (SRC)

University of Prince Edward Island economist Jim Sentance noted that even before the onset of the pandemic, Prince Edward Island had “one of the world’s markets. tightest jobs in the country for 15 to 24 year olds ”.

He said the number of workers available in this age cohort declined during the pandemic because the number of international students and new immigrants declined.

Sentance also said that there are other factors, such as the availability of child care services and rising housing costs, that could make it harder for companies to find workers for the wages they are paying. they offer.

“If rents don’t start to moderate, Island employers will have to adjust to higher wages,” he said.

Foreign workers “are part of the solution”?

Cudmore said his company pushed the starting wage for cleaners at the Holman Grand to more than $ 14 an hour. Four hotel cleaner positions were recently listed on a federal job bank website, with a starting salary of $ 14.25.

But a quick search of that same website will reveal many listings of jobs in the Prince Edward Island hospitality industry that start at the minimum wage of $ 13 an hour.

Immigration will be part of the solution to ensure that we have enough workers if they are not here in Prince Edward Island.– Kevin Murphy

“If the operation pays minimum wage, part of the problem lies with the operator,” Murphy said.

He said the Murphy Group was evaluating its compensation program for employees, which he said he expects to continue over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Murphy, Cudmore and others in the industry are taking inspiration from the agriculture and fish processing industries, viewing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as a possible solution to their worker problems.

“Immigration will be part of the solution to ensure we have enough workers if they are not here in Prince Edward Island,” said Murphy.

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