Many businesses in town are struggling to return to normal and being forced to implement restrictions, not due to public health mandates but to staff shortages.
“We’ve had to restrict hours of operation in our food and beverage operations, restrict our menus, we’ve had to close operations on certain days due to lack of staff,” said Brady Beruschi, owner of the Regent hotel, the Best Western, The Stoke Hotel, The 112 restaurant, Cheers and River City Pub. “We’ve been leaving hotel rooms offline or not sellable because we don’t have the manpower to clean the rooms.”
The problem of a post-pandemic worker shortage isn’t unique to Revelstoke, it has been reported nation-wide and even internationally. Locally however, many of the problems seem to have existed prior to the pandemic, while some were intensified by COVID and new issues arose.
“We are seeing interest and action from the federal government so that does confirm that this is widespread across the nation and of course I think, in B.C., it’s exacerbated in resort towns,” said Stacey Brensrud, executive director of the Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce.
Work Holiday Visas
“A lack of work-holiday visa workers has definitely been a struggle, especially for the bigger employers like Bell Star Resort and KHMR are obviously struggling with that, and that trickles down to some of the other jobs,” explained Tess Davies, marketing and communications manager for Kicking Horse Country Chamber of Commerce. Golden is experiencing similar difficulties.
The official name for a work-holiday visa in canada is an IEC (International Experience Canada) Visa.
According to Immigration Canada, in the 14 months prior to the start of the pandemic (February 2019-March 2020) 69,186 participants activated their work permits. Whereas 14 months after the pandemic (March 2020 t0 May 2021), only 10,119 participants activated their work permits.
“There’s no people on work visas, Australians, Scandinavians, European workers, but its mostly the Australians,” said Elmer Rorstad, owner of Free Spirit Sports.
Immigration reopened applications for IEC visas on March 1, 2021 and with the borders set to reopen to fully vaccinated travelers on Sept. 7, numbers of IEC visas activated will begin to rise again.
That being said, as Rorstad explained, Australians are known to be one of the biggest demographics amongst IEC workers. Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, stated on July 30, in a press conference, that he has no plans to open the border until 80 per cent of the adult population is vaccinated. According to Our World in Data currently only 14.7 per cent are fully vaccinated.
“I suspect that some hospitality workers just didn’t want to remain in the unstable environment of shutdowns and I would think some people have retrained and entered into another area of work as-well,” said Brensrud.
Many other business owners had similar views.
“Face it a lot of people self-examined their life and realized that family or lifestyle is more important than just earning money,” said Rorstad.
The shortage in hospitality workers may partially be the effect of some initial measures to employ out-of-work servers.
In September 2020 the provincial government dedicated $44.1 million to launch the Health Career Access Program in an attempt to recruit workers to fill the gap in long term care homes
“We’re looking to people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, particularly those who were employed in the hospitality industry. They understand service. They understand the importance of treating people as individuals and they know it’s essential to treat people with respect and dignity,” said Premier John Horgan in a press release back in September.
Employment Insurance and other COVID related benefits.
Many speculate that another reason for the labour shortage may be the ease and accessibility of programs such as EI, CERB (Canadian emergency response benefit) or CRB (Canadian Recovery benefit).
“Probably the greatest reason is that so many people are still collecting the $2,000 a month government money (CRB) which is supposed to end September 25, 2021,” said Beruschi.
CERB was discontinued in December with many people being transitioned to EI, others where eligible for CRB.
According to Employment and Social Development Canada as of July 7, 2021, there where 910 people in Revelstoke collecting EI. This year a total of 1,440 beneficiaries in town have collected EI, pre-pandemic that number totalled 850 (2019).
According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey for June 2021, B.C. is the sole province to have a lower unemployment rate than prior to the pandemic. The employment growth was concentrated among youth aged 15 to 24.
“I think its just a lack of bodies,” said Rorstad. “I think CERB and other benefits have been a god send to be honest. If we didn’t have the government subsidizing the way it did – businesses or individuals – we would have probably gone into a depression.”
“The elephant in the room is housing,” said Ingrid Brohn, director of Community Economic Development for the city, at the July 27 council meeting. “That definitely has an impact on our work force supply, it’s systemic and it’s long reaching.”
The challenge of housing in Revelstoke isn’t new, it was cited as one of the problems in the city funded Revelstoke Labour Market Survey back in 2015.
Brensrud said that the issue is due to housing being hard to find, unaffordable and the cost of living, in general, being higher. She also said the effects of this housing shortage have been seen in all sectors.
“This isn’t just limited to tourism, we also hear of higher level positions that can’t be filled because there’s great candidates that would love to work here but just can’t find any housing,” said Brensrud.
Over the course of the pandemic, many jobs shifted to being remote and many new remote workers left cities in favour of an outdoor lifestyle. Brensrud said Revelstoke’s strong connectivity and fibre optic infrastructure allows for that type of economy.
“But of course people that are working remotely in that respects aren’t taking front-line jobs, it is affecting the housing. It brings a different demographic of demands on the housing pool that just decreases the pool for the rest of us,” said Brensrud.
BC Housing bought two apartments in June 2019 in order to help tackle affordable housing in Revelstoke. Between the two – Rivers Edge and Columbia Gardens – there are 177 homes. Currently both apartments are under construction and are partially occupied, however renovations are not scheduled for completion until Fall 2022.
BC Housing is also working on two other projects, the Mt. Begbie property at 420 Downie St. and 24 affordable rental homes at 297 Humbert St.
“Revelstoke Mountain Resort is also moving forward with its application to build staff housing at the base of the Resort, with plans to begin construction in 2022,” said Kevin Manuel, director of marketing at Revelstoke Mountain Resort.
Increase In Tourism
An ease on COVID restrictions as well as provincial approval of recreational travel nationwide has created an increase in domestic tourism as Canadians seek to make the most of their summer.
“Pent-up demand for travel has been at an all-time high,” said Cindy Sosroutomo, in Travelweek’s 2021 Consumer Survey.
“This summer we beat our record for most profitable day ever, even before I owned the place,” said Martin Perron, owner of Nico’s Pizzeria.
Rorstad says that historically winter has been the most profitable season but with the resort opening for summer activities and new biking infrastructure that is starting to change.
Tourism creates a demand for workers at specific periods of time, COVID-19’s ever changing restrictions have further complicated the matter. On March 29 provincial health orders restricted indoor dining, making patios and take out the only option for restaurants. On May 25 the government of B.C. began it’s four-step restart program.
Step 1 allowed restaurants to return to indoor dining with six patrons per table, it also allowed for recreational travel within travel regions.
Step 2 began on June 15 allowing restaurants to once again serve liquor until midnight and allowing recreational travel within B.C.
Step 3 began July 1 allowing for Canada-wide recreational travel and lifting group limits for restaurants and bars.
Summer holidays began June 29 leaving restaurants just 15 days to staff before returning to full capacity and government approved, nation-wide travel.
On July 27, city council acknowledged the issue and Ingrid Brohn, director of Community Economic Development presented a report describing the complexities of the matter.
“It’s good that we are discussing this, we need to come up with a solution and I don’t think we can do that around this table. It’s going to take many iterations of government to figure out a way to assist and make this work,” said Mayor Gary Sulz.
While it may provide short-term help to businesses, Brohn suggests that providing better packages for employees may not be the best solution.
“It’s a zero sum game, any efforts we make in recruiting workers to Revelstoke means taking them away from another province another community another business within our community,” said Brohn.
The Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce is tackling one aspect through the “bridge to culinary skills training” program.
The program will take eight participants, train them at no cost and place them in local kitchens.
The chamber is also part of a stakeholder group committed to helping get the housing project at 420 Downie St. off the ground in a timely manner.
“When you’re looking at issues like housing or worker shortages you have to push and pull at the same time in every direction to make some sort of an impact, because it’s not easily solvable, because it doesn’t require one solution or one agency, it’s multi faceted,” said Brensrud.