Labour shortage reality shared by local panel
Businesses are cross training, doling out perks and strategizing how to find and keep workers, as Salt Spring Island experiences a labour shortage compounded by a lack of housing.
In a virtual panel hosted by the Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 21 as part of Small Business Week events, three business leaders from the island’s grocery, artisanal food, restaurant and accommodation industries tackled what appears to be a growing labour shortage felt across industries. The panel heard about a range of approaches being taken by local businesses to find and keep workers, including cross training, automation, offering discounts and benefits, and even providing workforce housing.
Country Grocer is one of the island’s largest employers with 160 employees. Senior manager Matteo Hermani said the company has taken the step of purchasing housing and renting units to their employees at an affordable rate, charging around half of what the same kind of housing would currently go for on the market.
“It is a situation where we either make affordable housing available, or Salt Spring Island is going to basically not have any good, solid labour force,” he said. “Because it’s just not possible to make ends meet if you are making $17 to $20 an hour and then have to spend most of the money on rent.”
Offering housing is not possible for all businesses, said Salt Spring Inn owner Jeremy Milsom.
“In private businesses, there’s so many considerations in even being able to offer a job. Profit margins are razor thin, and your competition will take advantage of making sure that they’re in a favourable position,” he said.
The very high cost of housing and the local regulatory regime “pretty well not [permitting] anything that might be considered auxiliary” combine to create a difficult situation, he added.
Having to house workers is inevitable, said Daniel Wood, and he understands why several island businesses are doing so.
“But it’s something that I really wish didn’t need to happen, not just because it’s incredibly expensive and we can’t really afford to do it,” said Wood, who is general manager of Salt Spring Island Cheese. “But also, it creates this situation where people are both your employee and your tenant, and I just think it’s not healthy, it’s not ideal.”
Several of the island’s essential services are being affected by the housing shortage. Last week, the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation announced it had created an online portal where property owners can list their available housing for hospital staff to access. In an Oct. 21 update, the foundation stated housing shortages are “hampering the hospital’s ability to both recruit new staff and also retain existing staff.”
Foundation executive director Roberta Martell said there are currently 31 positions to be filled at the hospital.
As Rainbow Road pool has opened up for drop-in swimming seven days a week after COVID- related closures, this facility is also short staffed, said Dan Ovington, manager of the Capital Regional District’s Salt Spring parks and recreation department. Ovington hadn’t anticipated shortages because the island offered lifeguard training during the pandemic, yet a number of senior staff were recruited to other aquatic facilities in the region. Other vacant positions “support the administration, recreation program delivery and our major capital projects that are currently underway in our community parks and recreation properties,” said Ovington.
The CRD and a range of other businesses, government and non-profit agencies are actively hiring, as indicated by 67 open positions on the online Salt Spring Exchange job board.
Panelists at Thursday’s event were asked by chamber executive director Jesse Brown whether upping wages would make it more feasible to live on the island.
Hermani acknowledged that in the business community in general, wage increases are seen as a “dirty word,” yet there is evidence they do not negatively impact business. On Salt Spring, however, Hermani said wages would need to reach “quite exorbitant” rates to make a difference in the present housing market.
Wood added that even with wage increases, there is still a limited pool of people to hire. He painted a bleak possible future where more people are commuting to the island for work.
“We’re becoming a bit of a Martha’s Vineyard kind of situation where we’re having to import people in to the island who can’t actually afford to live here. And they’re not really part of the community at all, if all they do is show up for work and then turn around and leave again,” he said. “That’s the other reality of this, which is we’re going to lose the character of our island if we’re not careful.”
Milsom said he’s been lucky to have many employees stay with the inn for several years. While they’ve experienced some challenges filling kitchen positions, Milsom said some employees have now been trained to work in positions across the restaurant and the inn. Managers have also upped their hours to handle the shortage. And the inn recently decided to close all day on Wednesday and on Sunday evenings. Milsom said this is partly due to staff shortages and partly to allow their kitchen manager guaranteed time off.
Hermani said they have had to “really up their game” and are constantly hiring staff, which is the complete opposite of 10 and even five years ago when the grocer had to turn applicants away. They now offer what Hermani said is a “phenomenal” discount on food as well as benefits, travel bursaries, student bursaries and overtime pay.
Some island businesses have already implemented or are planning to implement automation as part of the solution. Milsom said the inn now has two cloud-based programs that have already reduced two to three hours of labour needed per day. Country Grocer will be forced to look at installing two to four self checkouts, Hermani said, yet the plan is to keep the same number of cashiers. For businesses like Salt Spring Island Cheese, automation isn’t in the works, as part of the appeal of their products is that they look and are hand made.
Using volunteer labour was suggested by webinar attendee Rod Martens, whose Chorus Frog Farm has invited customers to help at the farm in exchange for farm stand credit. Customers like being a part of the farming process, Martens said, and it is “basically the definition of community-supported agriculture.”
The pandemic has changed the labour needs of island businesses. In Milsom’s restaurant, more staff are needed in order to check vaccine cards. At Country Grocer, a lot of overtime hours were accrued during the pandemic and more staff were also trained to be cashiers.
The business owners were generally in agreement that the federal government’s $2,000-per-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which expired Oct. 23, gave people the chance and the time to consider their alternatives and what they want to do in life. Hermani said CERB funding reduced the workforce, yet not dramatically. Students leaving the store to attend educational institutions has impacted Country Grocer much more.
Wood agrees that the CERB may not have helped the labour shortage, yet said the housing shortage is a much bigger concern.