‘Desperate for staff’: Innisfil restaurants struggling to find employees

Jennifer McKnight, owner of the Harbour House Grill in Lefroy, would normally have no problem finding people to work at her restaurant. 

But this year, it has become a real challenge. 

“I try to hire every single morning. I’m up on the computer looking at Indeed,” she said, referring to the popular employment website. “This is the first year I’ve had to pay for Indeed ads.”

In Ontario, the minimum wage is $12.45 for a liquor server, and the general minimum wage is $14.25. 

“For the last couple of years, every single server who started here, even if they’ve never been here before, they get a regular minimum wage,” she said. “If you’re in the kitchen, you start at $16, $17, and there’s been people bumped up to $20.”

Despite that, when she does interview and hire people, some don’t show up for work. 

“I’m actually saying they’re hired, and we’ll do a working interview, because I’m so desperate for staff before I even meet them, and then nobody shows up,” she said. “It’s putting so much extra stress and pressure on me. It’s wasted time.”

Jennifer Westra, team leader and employment consultant at Agilec in Innisfil, said those experiences are similar to what’s being seen across the industry. 

“Many employers in the food and beverage industry … just can’t seem to get employees at the moment,” she said. “Some restaurants, many, have closed for a couple of days or adjusted their hours.” 

Agilec, an Employment Ontario service provider, also helps workers get training and skills for the job search. 

“That actually matches what we’re seeing in our offices, where we have reduced intake of people that are unemployed coming in and looking for work,” Westra said, adding she suspects social-assistance programs may be playing a role. 

McKnight said Harbour House will be closing on Mondays and Tuesdays beginning in September to protect the staff they have.

“Everybody here is getting burnt out — they’re doing 40-plus hours,” she said. “That also makes a lot of people quit, because it’s a lot of stress.” 

For some employees, the backdrop of COVID-19 still worries them and has led to some staying home instead of working. 

“Every situation is individual,” McKnight said, adding she has been considering what she can do beyond increasing wages even more to keep employees, including a possible group health plan.

If finding staff continues to be a problem, she has considered another option: having people order from tablets. 

“Then I don’t have to worry about seven staff per Saturday night that might not show up,” she said. “It’s not a route I ever wanted to do, but now I really feel like we’re being forced in that direction.”

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STORY BEHIND THE STORY: The Harbour House Grill said it would be cutting brunch service due to labour challenges, which became a lightning rod for online commentary about restaurant pay, so we reached out to get their side of the story.