Collaborative solutions needed to fix worker shortage in Revelstoke

Businesses in all sectors are struggling to hire staff, but the problem runs deeper than wages

Businesses that rely on seasonal staff such as restaurants are feeling the cruch of the Revelstoke worker shortage. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

This article first appeared in print in the August issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

The lack of available workers is hitting Revelstoke businesses hard; hotels are having to close down rooms and stores and restaurants are closing early to make up for limited staff.

It’s a situation that’s being replicated across the province, and across the country, as many potential employees struggle to balance paying high rent and working jobs that pay less than the living wage. The most recent numbers released by the Living Wage for Families Campaign sets that at $19.37 per hour for Revelstoke.

Tourism Revelstoke marketing manager Meghan Tabor said the worker shortage in Revelstoke is a multi-faceted issue with intertwining factors including affordable housing, foreign worker programs, immigration, and provincial nominee program. It’s a combination of those, said Tabor, that has led to the current situation here.

“We are nearing desperation here, with numerous businesses aching for staff,” Tabor said.

La Baguette Cafe is one such business. Recently, owners Sonia Ratté and Olivier Dutil made the decision to switch from having serving staff to using a Table Tracker. The computerized system uses a digital coaster given to customers to take with them to their table. Later, food or drinks are delivered by table runners. While it’s an efficient system, Ratté said initially it was to help curb the cafe’s lack of staff. Fortunately, that situation has now changed as Ratté said they found people showing up later in the season looking for work. She said it’s a lack of affordable housing that makes it difficult for anyone to make ends meet in Revelstoke working a cafe or other lower earning job.

“We would love to be able to pay more,” she said.

Raising wages isn’t a sure solution however. In a letter to MLA Doug Clovechok and MP Wayne Stetski, Taco Club owner Mike Brown said the restaurant has introduced financial incentives including: raising wages by almost 20% over the past two years, improving tip sharing among back and front of house employees, and creating new employee driven community minded initiatives.

“At the moment, every single restaurant in Revelstoke is desperately trying to hire staff. Speaking with my restaurant colleagues, many are in despair over their inability to meet businesses demand,” Brown said in the letter.

In Revelstoke foreign workers after an adventure in the Canadian mountains often make up the bulk of workers who fill part time seasonal jobs during the busy winter months. Traditionally many of those workers have come from Australia, but Rana Nelson, job developer with WorkBC Revelstoke, said potential changes to requirements may mean that avenue of workers may become limited.

Nelson said summer students, typically those who are on break from university or college, are often choosing not to take on employment during their time off from studying. This has led to positions in Revelstoke typically filled by students left empty this year.

So what are the solutions for Revelstoke? It’s clear the lack of available long-term affordable housing is turning workers away. Nelson said she knows anecdotally of at least one business who had a potential employee turn down employment simply because they were able to find a job in another city with affordable rent. There is also the matter of the Labour Market Impact Assessment classification, a document employers in Canada are often required to get in order to hire foreign workers.

The key factor in the classification is that Revelstoke is lumped in with a larger geographic area, and the unemployment rate is higher in the region. This leads to a more restrictive rules on hiring.

“We absolutely need to be excluded from our economic region for the LMIA classification. We understand that this is dictated through Employment and Social Development Canada, but how do we get through to them?” said Nelson.

Other possible solutions include creating a regional employee pool. Nelson is part of the Kootenay Workforce Development Team out of Selkirk College. The group has been exploring the possibility of a project that would see the creation of an employee task force in the region. That project would see foreign workers be able to experience various parts of the region, while still providing staffing for businesses. As an example a worker could come and work in Revelstoke over the winter and then go to a different part of the region to work and spend their summer.

The focus on foreign workers often comes with the argument that this means fewer jobs for locals, and that they create downward pressure on wages. Nelson said this isn’t the case for Revelstoke. Often people locally are either working already, working full time or have made money elsewhere and have come to Revelstoke to live the mountain lifestyle, she said.

It’s a difficult problem to solve and one that Nelson says requires many levels of government to address the numerous pieces that will result in workers being able to fill a variety of positions.