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As COVID-19 restrictions lift and Calgary businesses fully reopen, many in the hospitality industry are struggling when it comes to securing enough staffing as workers search for a better work-life balance. 

The Alberta government declared the province “open for summer” on July 1st after 70 per cent of Albertans aged 12 and up received their first vaccination.

Karen Kho, co-owner of Empire Provisions and Lil Empire Burger, says only half of her staff has returned — for a variety of reasons, including the pattern of closures that happened through the pandemic.

“This industry has provided a lot of inconsistencies in terms of job security over the last year and half, and with that we’ve seen a little bit of an exodus,” says Kho. 

With the numerous lockdowns affecting restaurants, many staff have become exhausted and the mental impact of wanting to work and being told you can’t has been daunting to many, says Kho.

After a year and a half of changing restrictions and losses to their businesses, restaurants are working hard to recover, making the staffing difficulties an even greater issue.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time to be able to reopen and to make some gains towards the losses we had to endure,” says Kho. “We just can’t get back to the momentum that we were at or recoup our losses because we have to have revived hours and we just don’t have the staff to execute at the level or volume we would like to.”

PHOTO: JESSIE McCALL/UNSPLASH

Not everyone is struggling though. Mauro Martina, founder of OEB Breakfast Co., has had no issues finding people to work. 

He says one reason is likely because his restaurant offers employees the luxury of being home at 3 p.m.

“It’s that work-life balance that really appeals to even the younger generation, people that are entering the workforce, or they have been in the workforce for a long period of time but are just tired of the late nights and so on,” says Martina.

That is something the industry is now being forced to address. Darren Fabian, director of operations for the Modern Group, says because the market is so competitive right now, employees are expecting more.

“Since we’re all looking, the day of getting someone to work in a kitchen for minimum wage, those days are over,” says Fabian. 

The Modern Group, for the time being, has chosen to close on Sundays and Mondays in order to give staff a much-needed break.

Kho, meanwhile, says the pandemic has caused people to reflect on what they want and their quality of life, as the industry can be both mentally and physically draining. 

Her establishments have created an incentive program, providing their employees with health benefits, grocery credits and more.

She hopes that over the next six months the industry sees a return of staff and people who truly want to work in hospitality.

“I think the only way for that to happen is for the industry to take a very hard look at itself and see what it is that’s driving people away and be part of that impactful change,” says Kho.

Kho and Fabian say an additional factor in the struggle to hire is individuals wanting to stay on Employment Insurance (EI).

“We have had interviews with individuals who have alluded to the fact that if they were to come back they would prefer to do under their minimum of hours that will still allow them to be on CERB, so that they can do a bit of a double dipping,” says Kho. 

In the meantime, Fabian says while they are happy to have guests enjoying their dining rooms and patios once again they are asking customers to be considerate. 

“We’re grateful to be back open,” says Fabian. “But I think I would just ask the general public to have a bit of patience when they are coming out to restaurants. You know everybody is a little short and we are doing our best to serve you the best we can.”