Stephen Calderon says he doesn’t mind working nearly 75 hours a week. He has two jobs at a restaurant in Banff, and some of those hours include covering unfilled jobs — or taking on coworkers who are tired and need a break.
“I love it, so it’s all good,” Calderon, 30, said as he took a break from chopping onions.
He obtained a work holiday permit and arrived in Canada from Costa Rica last fall. It’s helping plug what people in the Rocky Mountain town call the labor drought — and the crisis.
Hundreds if not a few thousand jobs in Banff, Lake Louise and Canmore are vacant.
Hotel operators, restaurant owners, labor experts and recruiters welcome changes to the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program announced last month. However, they say they are not likely to see any benefit this year – and because of delays in processing, they fear help won’t arrive until 2024.
“It doesn’t offer any instant solutions,” said Stefan Prevost, chef and co-owner of two Banff restaurants, Block Kitchen & Bar and Choco Isakaya.
“We are in a crisis situation,” he said.
Prevost, who appointed Calderon last year, says wages have already been boosted, but the industry is looking to fill jobs ahead of a potential increase in summer visitors.
Last summer, he had to close one or two days a week because he didn’t have enough staff.
“There were simply not enough staff, exhausted staff … it was difficult to meet the demand.”
Walk around Banff Street and you’ll see that almost every company has a sign in their window looking for help.
The TFWP changes allow sectors with labor shortages – including hospitality and food services – to hire more employees from abroad, and in some cases those employees can stay longer. The province, which works alongside the federal government on labor and immigration matters, lifted restrictions this month to allow employers better access to international workers.
Prevost says the changes will allow him to hire up to 30 percent of his staff under the TFWP, but he says the process is time-consuming and expensive, and applications face processing delays.
He has already reduced working hours and raised prices to cover additional labor costs.
For the job of an experienced cook, [the wage] Up to $19 [per hour.]. There are a lot of places that are starting to offer $20 an hour or more.”
This is an increase of $2 to $3 an hour over the past two years. Alberta minimum wage is $15 an hour.
“We have to raise prices so we can make all of this work,” he said.
It’s a real challenge
The Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association is hoping the revamped TFWP will help, but is calling for more changes.
said Trevor Long, president of the association and general manager of the 333-room Rimrock Resort.
“How long it will take, even if it is available to us in 2023, there are some unknowns and fears that we have. It is a real challenge,” Long said.
Long says his team placed applications for four workers under the TFWP in January 2021 — and they were told the wait would extend into next spring.
“There is a need for a real closer look and a change in the way we access workers in Canada,” he said.
Long, who has worked at the resort for nearly three decades, says some operators offer bonuses and other incentives to lure people to Banff and Lake Louise, but that domestic workers are difficult to attract.
He says Tourism Canada, an industry group, expects the labor shortage to continue through 2028.
Hundreds and thousands of jobs
The director of the Banff and Canmore Career Resource Center wonders where all the applicants have gone.
The mall, off Banff Street, was empty during a recent visit. However, the job board was filled with assignments for general employment, trades, office management, hospitality, food and beverage, healthcare, and sales.
“We have gone from what we call understaffing for many years, and now what we call staff drought,” said Michel Dufresne.
Dufresne says the traditional deep reserves of workers from Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario would venture west to work. They will be joined by workers from Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan and 30 other eligible countries who have come under the International Work Permit Program from Canada in the past.
But he says they won’t come in the same numbers we’ve seen before.
“We don’t know if it’s because of the backlog of immigration or because these people aren’t ready to travel yet. But they’re not here, that’s all we know,” he said.
Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, employers recruit individuals to work exclusively for them for a specified period of time. Under the Work Vacation Program, employees are free to work for whomever they choose and can stay for up to two years – and there’s also a clearer path to permanent residence.
Dufresne says there are about 250 positions in the center right now, and some employers are looking to fill multiple positions. He says the number of vacancies can actually be a few thousand.
Fewer foreign workers, higher domestic wages?
Statistics Canada estimates the number of job vacancies in Alberta at 88,350 in February, the latest month for which statistics are available.
An expert on Canada’s immigration and refugee policy agrees that the changes announced by the federal government will do little to help employers this year.
Robert Falconer is a research associate in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. He says employers seem to have reached a limit on how much they are willing to pay for those vacancies, and some hope that foreign workers can fill the gap.
“When employers say they struggle to find domestic workers, what they are honestly saying is that they struggle to find domestic workers at a price that is profitable to them,” he said.
“We have to wonder, can they raise the wages of domestic workers?”
Falconer says he has no intention of criticizing employers. He says TFWP is a benefit for people who come to Canada, many of whom return a portion of their earnings to help improve their families’ lives back home.
He says it’s also worth considering that if fewer foreign workers are allowed into the country, will domestic workers see wage increases for those same jobs? Or, conversely, now that the quotas for foreign workers have increased, will wages remain low for Canadians?
Based on recent job openings, the center says hospitality, tourism and restaurant wages have risen anywhere from 60 cents to $2.73 an hour for jobs in the food and beverage, hotel guest services, and travel and tourism sectors.
And the industry is still wondering where the applicants have gone.
The CEO of the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association describes it as a “delicate dance” that will take place this summer as operators scramble to meet customer demands and service expectations.
“It’s a delicate dance of trying to get people together who can work extra shifts, the people who work on the supervisory and management front lines,” Darren Reader said.
Reeder says the foreign workers who were here have had to leave during the pandemic and have not come back. He also says that the industry has not done a good enough job of promoting the industry as a viable career option in lieu of short-term seasonal work.
Another obstacle, he says, is competition with the “burning” oil and gas sector and has drawn people into service sector jobs elsewhere in Alberta.
“It destabilizes tourism employment in general in our sector,” Reeder said.
He would like to see a specific hospitality and tourism program to attract foreign workers who would be given a clear path to permanent residence.
“Let’s make sure that we build a program that responds to the needs of the regions by season and function, so that we can give this industry back and contribute to the Canadian economy.”
Back in Shoku Izakaya, Calderon says his next goal is to obtain another work permit, which could lead to permanent residence.
“Yes, that’s fine,” he said. “Permanent stay and maybe staying here a little longer.”
That’s what employers hope for, too.
Brian Labe is a foundation correspondent with CBC Calgary. If you have a good idea or advice for a story, you can reach out to him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.