'Dismal' staffing struggles worsen in Whistler 

Chamber to host meeting to address labour woes

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WHISTLER CHAMBER OF COMMERCE - LABOUR LOST Chamber CEO Val Litwin and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce are hosting a meeting Aug. 18 to discuss the resort's labour shortage.
  • Photo courtesy of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce
  • LABOUR LOST Chamber CEO Val Litwin and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce are hosting a meeting Aug. 18 to discuss the resort's labour shortage.

As record numbers of tourists continue to visit Whistler, businesses are starting to show the strains of a barren labour market.

Shortened hours and outright closures have become increasingly common as business owners do their best to stay afloat.

"It's a tough one," said Whistler Chamber CEO Val Litwin.

"The chamber feels for these businesses. All of these entrepreneurs and operators in town, they work their butts off to make a go of it."

The chamber is hosting a meeting on Aug. 18 from 12 to 1:30 p.m. at the chamber office to get a better sense of where businesses currently stand.

"The thrust of the meeting is really to get a handle on where the very specific pain points are for businesses right now in the resort," Litwin said.

"Anecdotally we're just hearing we need more people. But if there's a bit of a pattern around specific sectors or specific positions, I think that will be very interesting to kind of peel back and take a closer look at."

The meeting is open to chamber members and non-members alike, but for business owners who are already feeling the effects, what's discussed there is unlikely to ease any doubts.

Rick Hale, owner of Avalanche Pizza, recently closed his Creekside location — and he's still struggling with staffing in the village.

"I couldn't even fathom to continue on in Creekside," Hale said. "We were just doing a disservice down there by not having enough employees. It was affecting my brand and our customer service and everything."

The poor-quality service, in turn, affects the Whistler brand as a whole, Hale said.

"All we have in all our windows is 'Help Wanted,' 'Help Wanted,' 'Help Wanted,' and now we should have signs: 'Help Wanted, and we apologize for the disservice that we're bringing forward due to our labour shortage,'" Hale said.

"We're at our wit's end."

Hale isn't alone. Priyanka Lewis, owner and operator of The Brickworks Public House and Three Below, said she's had to shorten kitchen hours and enlist the help of her husband — a former chef — to keep serving customers.

"We've been struggling for awhile, but now it's to the point where we're putting out adverts on Job Bank Canada, in the Pique, on Craigslist, and we're just not getting anything," Lewis said.

The staff shortage means Lewis' businesses must fight just to keep the doors open.

"We've got a lot of demand and there's stuff that we want to do, like promote our breakfast meal period... but we can't promote it, we can't market it, because we don't have staff to put out the plates," she said.

"It's a shame, right? We're a small company, we're brand new... it's not that the business isn't there. It's that we can't cater for it."

With a federal election around the corner, the chamber's advocacy work with the federal government concerning an exemption for Temporary Foreign Workers in Whistler is likely on hold — though Conservative MP John Weston has been invited to the Aug. 18 meeting.

The advocacy work is ongoing, Litwin said, but in the meantime businesses may have to take a closer look at their recruitment models.

"To give kudos to the business community, I think they've always been forward thinking and innovative in their practices, but now we have to look at it from top to bottom," Litwin said.

"So it's not just a competitive livable wage, it's not just flexibility in the work schedule, it is what kind of a culture and team environment are you creating for your team? How are you thinking strategically about training and development to keep those people engaged?"

Litwin touted the chamber's Whistler Experience program as a key recruiting tool for business owners.

But as the busiest summer in Whistler's history gives way to another hectic winter, there are more questions than answers for business owners.

"I think something has to change, and it can't be in a year or 18 months. It has to change now," Lewis said.

"I don't know how the winter is going to go and I don't know how small businesses are going to survive. I've been in town 11 years and I've never felt this helpless."

To assist in its advocacy work with the federal government, the chamber needs the help of business owners. Head to www.whistlerchamber.com/advocacy/surveys to fill out the chamber's survey on Working Holiday Visas.


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