B.C. is now in Phase 2 of its four-phase restart plan, but after 15 months of COVID-19, success is anything but guaranteed in Whistler.
The pandemic has created a perfect storm of fed-up workers and business owners desperate to recoup losses and pay off debt.
Most summers, Eric Wight, owner of Backroads Whistler, has no trouble at all finding the workers needed to staff his business at Alta Lake.
“This year we’re not getting applicants. It’s crazy,” Wight said.
“I usually get 50 applicants a year, and I don’t even advertise. This year I’m advertising.”
At this point, Wight said he’s six employees short—about half his usual allotment at this time of year.
“I think they’ll come. I hope they come,” he said, relaying a story of one worker who recently didn’t show up for his first day after being hired.
“I phoned him and said, ‘Well, you know, training was supposed to start an hour ago, where are ya?’ [And he said] ‘Oh I changed my mind, because my visa runs out at the end of August, and I’m on EI [Employment Insurance]. So I’m just gonna party,’” Wight said.
“It was amazing that he would actually say that, but he did, and then it’s out there, you know? Why work if you don’t have to?”
While there’s no way to quantify exactly how often it’s happening, other Whistler businesses are reporting the same thing, said Melissa Pace at the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.
“I would say a handful are seeing people come in to apply for the jobs, they get the job, and then they turn the job down,” Pace said.
“Whether that’s because of EI, and that they’re wanting to stay off work for as long as possible, that’s hard to determine, but what’s being felt in the community is that’s what happening.”
After phasing out the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) last September, the federal government introduced temporary changes to its EI program to continue assisting people left unemployed by COVID-19.
According to the government, people applying for regular EI benefits must demonstrate that they are capable and available for work each day they claim benefits and must actively seek employment to maintain their eligibility.
They also have a number of responsibilities, most of which relate to documenting their search for employment—things like registering for job search tools or employment agencies, or attending job fairs; “networking;” contacting potential employers; submitting applications; and attending interviews.
EI claimants are required to accept offers of suitable employment (though they are not required to have employers sign their job search forms, or provide them with a letter confirming they have applied for a job).
They also have to keep a detailed record of their job search efforts, and let Service Canada know when they refuse any offers of employment.
“Service Canada takes the integrity of its programs seriously and uses data analytics and intelligence capabilities to actively monitor and identify cases of error and fraud,” a government spokesperson said.
“When it is found that a client is not available, capable of working, or searching for work, the department will take the appropriate action, which could include disentitlement or disqualification from receiving benefits.”
Employers can find more info and report suspected cases of fraud at servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/about/integrity/index.shtml.
As Whistler businesses try to ramp up for Phase 2 of B.C.’s restart plan, finding staff to serve the expected influx of visitors is “critical,” Pace said.
“We are already in such a labour crisis; it’s so critical that if you can work, get back to work,” she said, noting that businesses have to take advantage of the busy summer before what could potentially be a very quiet fall.
“I can’t say it enough how critical it is for people that are enjoying their lifestyle in Whistler that to sustain that lifestyle and keep our businesses and the doors open, they need to go to work,” she said.
“I mean, we just need them to go to work.”
But for a workforce that has long been the underappreciated beating heart of Whistler’s tourism economy, COVID-19 appears to have taken its toll.
A call-out for responses on Facebook by Pique generated an almost overwhelming number of opinions—but the common theme was one of exhaustion.
One worker, speaking anonymously, said they’ve been on CERB and EI since October, working about two 40-hour work weeks since then.
Though they asked for more hours in that span to top up their benefits, the request fell on deaf ears while newer employees were favoured.
“Now with restrictions lifting, they’re ramping up to hire more employees for summer, so all the trainees get hours now because they’re paid from a different ‘pool’ of money allotted for training wages compared to existing employees,” the worker said.
“Now that things are opening up, and you’re allowed to see people, etc, I’m trying to use this time to take care of [my mental health] a bit more, rather than working all the time, and being berated by customers on a daily basis, which doesn’t help the mental health situation.”
Another worker in the tourism industry said they’re now back to working full-time after only working two and a half months since March 2020.
“I loved the time off—called it my midlife retirement (as it may be the only retirement I get),” they said.
“I went out where and when I wanted, immersed myself in old and new hobbies, learned and volunteered. It was great for the mind, body and soul. While I am now working a job I enjoy with great people, I would still rather be a gentleman of leisure.”
Yet another said they have been on EI for the last eight months due to an “abusive employer and environment” during the pandemic.
“I have been relying on EI to help pay my bills and treatment,” they said. “I am sure a lot of people that have been working through COVID are probably suffering a great deal from either customer or employer abuse.”
But of course, some are just living their best life.
“Been milking that government money since [January 2020] and I have no shame whatsoever,” said one.
“I could easily go back to work if I wanted to but I honestly have no motivation. I’m free to do what I want, when I want. Just one less thing to stress about during these crazy times.”
The easy answer to finding and retaining staff is to pay more than what government benefits are offering, but for many businesses—particularly small businesses still slammed by COVID-19 shutdown effects—that’s simply not possible.
“That’s a big challenge,” Pace said, adding that the solutions have to come from the federal government.
“They have to look at the criteria, they have to look at the way individuals are reporting their application process.”
In a resort town dealing with a perpetual housing crisis, having eligible workers choose not to work only exacerbates the staffing crunch, she added.
“To have many of them come here to live here, take the space in rooms and homes, to then not work, it’s really putting a damper on our ability to retain staff,” Pace said.
“I guess it’s the pros and cons of living in such a beautiful place, right? People want to be here, which is great … but we need the people that do come, that can work, to work.”
The issue is not just constrained to Whistler, or even B.C., Pace said, noting that resort communities across the province are meeting on June 17 to discuss the labour shortage, and the Whistler Chamber will continue to advocate with MP Patrick Weiler.
From Wight’s perspective, the government needs to step up to fix the problem.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic that the government came to the plate and got people who were hurting because of COVID some income. Absolutely, they jumped to the pump quick; great,” he said.
“And I think they’ve got to jump to the pump quick again, with getting people back to work. If business is opening up and we can’t get staff, the economy is not going to push forward.”