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Bow Valley misses international workers during staff shortage crunch

“Everyone has pitched up wages, but it doesn’t matter what you pay; there’s nobody to take the job."

BOW VALLEY – The Bow Valley is dearly missing its international and foreign workers during one of the worst staff shortages the area has seen – maybe ever.

The hospitality sector, one of the main economic muscles in Banff, Canmore and Lake Louise, is direly understaffed and it's forcing businesses to make tough financial decisions in order for better guest and employee experiences during important summer months in the tourism hotspots.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” Michel Dufresne, director at the Job Resource Centre in Banff and Canmore said of his 30 years of living and working in the Bow Valley about the lack of workers.

“Everyone has pitched up wages, but it doesn’t matter what you pay; there’s nobody to take the job."

Dufresne added statistics from five years ago showed there were between 2,000 to 3,000 foreign workers in the Bow Valley who made up between 20 to 30 per cent of the hospitality workforce.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and businesses began lay offs, there was a mass exodus of international workers from the Bow Valley returning to countries such as the Czech Republic, the U.K. and Australia, among others, who would fill positions in the local hospitality sector.

With the ripple effects of the virus still being felt and international precautions firmly in place, such as Australia's borders being closed and travelling internationally only being available with special exemptions, the Bow Valley is without major workforce contributors.

“We have a very low inventory of job-seekers at this point,” said Dufresne. “High volume of job postings for everything in hospitality. Staff shortages in August is not news … but this year is worse because we don’t have the foreigners, we don’t have the eastern Canadians, we don’t have the out-of-area traffic we used to get.

"One of the bulk groups is the Australians. They're not allowed to leave. They can leave for essential travel only. The work visa program, that’s shut down now and we don’t anticipate it to open until the new year."

According to the latest Statistics Canada data, nationally, the workforce in food services and accommodation grew by 35,000 in July – the most of any sector. Although, Alberta was not among the notable provinces where the increase happened, which were in Ontario and Manitoba.

Unemployment in Alberta in July dropped to 8.5 per cent from 9.3 per cent a month prior, but job opportunities locally remain untouched.

The Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA) stated local operators have been working hard to staff up since the beginning of the year and have been well prepared to welcome visitors back across Banff National Park.

“The majority of workplaces in our area have a mix of their year-round team members, summer students and International Experience Canada (IEC) workers,” said Wanda Bogdane, director of communications and stakeholder engagement at BLLHA in an email.

“We’ve seen interest from post-secondary job seekers through school-supported programs, which has helped drive talent to Banff and Lake Louise, but there’s no doubt that we are still facing similar struggles to other sectors and areas, and have jobs to fill.”

BLLHA was vocal to the Town of Banff to lift its temporary mask bylaw on, or prior to, Alberta’s July 1 lifting of the province-wide mask mandate as COVID-19 cases dropped in the area. In a letter addressed to town council, the tourism group stated it’s time to welcome visitors back to the community and rebuild the foundation of the tourism economy.

Since spring, tourists have been flocking to the Bow Valley in the pre- and post-vaccination era, and the High Country Inn in Banff is taking precautions to make sure guests ­– and employees – are taken care of during the challenging times of being understaffed.

The hotel, which has an average one-night stay ranging from $235 to $300, has been indirectly turning guests away on occasion by blocking online reservations such as last weekend when nine rooms were taken off the system to not overwhelm staff, especially in the physically-demanding housekeeper roles.

“There’s definitely a [financial] loss there,” said Jordan Irwin, general manager at High Country Inn. “But I’m happy with revenue and the quality of the product we’ve been able to deliver to guests without making our staff work crazy hours.”

In order to attract new staff and keep current members, Irwin said the hotel has increased wages and a bonus structure is being offered.

Pre-COVID-19, Irwin regularly saw job-seekers with a stack of paper resumes going from property-to-property on Banff Avenue looking for work. He said it’s been a “big hit” without the international market, whom Banff relies upon for staffing.

“I think on the simplest terms for us, you take away working holiday visas, and you take away the need for a lot of entry-level Canadian staff with the CERB and there’s not a lot left over,” said Irwin. “I would say that’s the environment the government’s created with the program with CERB [Canadian Emergency Response Benefit].

“I’m very thankful for the subsidies that they’ve provided for businesses, but on the other hand, I think it’s been too generous with the CERB and there’s always a lag period when something like that ends before you see the workforce get back and intact again.”

CERB, which provided millions of Canadians with financial relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, ends September 25.

Statistics Canada also noted food and beverage servers “working in the industry continue to be disproportionately impacted.”

The blow in workforce has caused local restaurants to reduce hours, offer fewer menu options and even close multiple days of the week during important summer tourism months.

And with fewer staff, there are longer waits to get service and food and customer tolerance isn't always the most understanding. This prompted Communitea Cafe's Marine Dansereau to place a sign in the business' windows that reads, "our community is experiencing a staff shortage. Please be kind to those that showed up and understand wait times may take longer."

“It was just in June that we were completely set for patio and front-of-house,” said Dansereau, owner and creative director at Communitea Cafe. “Within four weeks, everyone was needing to hire, which I think sent a lot of people scrambling because where you didn’t have the hours to give people and all the sudden increased your capacity … it definitely wasn’t an easy transition for anyone.”

Dansereau, who increased wages at the downtown Canmore cafe, cut back an hour each day while understaffed and said she doesn't like to compromise on service, but this year has been exceptional.

"We just hired a few more people so hopefully we can give some [current employees] some time off in the fall," she said.

"In the past, we always had people from Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and Europe, and you would get those people who would come for a year or two on visas. And often those people would stay in a position for that time and those are often people who would work in the service industry so I think that’s a huge hit."

BLLHA noted that "local employers have shared that some career-level tourism professionals moved into other industries during the height of the pandemic, so this is a unique time for those interested in professional development to move into more senior level roles."

With "just a trickle" of workers coming in the Job Resource Centre looking for hospitality jobs into the Bow Valley, Dufresne said the upcoming months are unpredictable as opposed to previous years' trends.

"If you were ask me what do I think is going to happen? Well, right now there’s just a lot of moving parts going into the next couple months," said Dufresne. "I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in September. ... If people get vaccinated, then I think that once people are free to come and go we’re going to have a busy fall season."

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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