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By Richard Trapunski for NOW

It’s become a common sight to see “Hiring” signs in restaurant windows and websites since the pandemic hit. In an industry with an already high turnover rate, an estimated 230,000 workers have left for new opportunities. After laying off workers time and time again due to the pandemic, a lot of restaurants are finding it hard to find staff at all. But, is the cause really CERB as so many suggest?

It’s been commonly expressed by employers that people just don’t want to work when they could collect CERB. However, A E Persaud of the Toronto Restaurant Worker’s Relief Fund says “If there is a resistance, it’s not a resistance to work – it’s a refusal of exploitative work.” The pandemic has caused many overworked and underappreciated workers to accept they’re worthy of respect and better treatment than they were getting.

While it’s been commonplace for restaurant workers to discuss the unstable wages, mistreatment, and unstable hours of the industry, the spotlight is being shown on owners and operators by advocacy groups. While they suggest people just don’t have the drive to work anymore, while offering below livable wages, hazardous conditions, especially during the pandemic, and treat works as disposable, the research says otherwise. The article reports “the general Ontario unemployment rate actually fell in July from 9.4 percent in January 2021 to 7.5 percent in July … and employment rose by 35,000 in accommodation and food services.”

One shining light through this pandemic has been the growing voices of advocacy groups. TRWRF, The Canadian Restaurant Worker’s Coalition, A Full Plate, Not 9 to 5, and others have taken up the fight for workers. While difficult due to the ever-changing nature of the service industry, the divide between front-of-house and back-of-house, and the vast array of positions these groups are fighting to see changes. The Canadian Restaurant Worker’s Coalition has petitioned the government for changes to EI rules to “permanently include precarious workers, a clear definition of fair work hours and wages, and adequate health protection…” stating the restaurants have received financial support for the government, but the workers have been left high and dry.

But, what about tipping? A lot of restaurants have chosen to change their stance on tipping through the pandemic. Ontario and Quebec are the only two provinces with a sub-minimum wage for service workers, with the expectation that customers will subsidize employee wages with tips. However, some restaurants have opted to rid themselves of tips in favour of livable, stable wages. The article suggests by raising prices, eliminating tips, and showing customers exactly what they’re paying for in terms of worker conditions could be a selling point for those that increase worker compensation. Seeing which restaurants treat their employees well could be a selling feature. There now exist lists and pledges to improve worker conditions. However, Persaud stated,

“If we can create a baseline for what constitutes decent work, then we can hold employers to that standard.

Some owners are trying to set that standard, with Oyster Boy being notable. While dealing with a personal situation, founder Adam Colquhoun, made each of his 6 employees part owner, with each owning 5% of the restaurant. Colquhoun said it was a thank-you for saving the restaurant after the workers knocked it out of the park in the weeks Colquhoun was away. His goal, which was accomplished, was to get all workers above the poverty line, $22.08 in Toronto, provide paid training, and be treated with respect.

“If you start your staff off treating them with respect, just basic human respect, you’re going to have a more successful business. It just makes common sense.”

While some claim CERB, which paid $156 less than the median wage in hospitality according to a Globe and Mail article, is the cause for the lack of workers, others have seen through it. Better conditions, respect, stability, and compassion are what’s missing. The article ended with Rebecca Gordon’s, of the Canadian Restaurant Worker’s Coalition, statement:

“We would love if everyone who enters the restaurant industry stay forever… The conditions are not there right now… That’s why it’s time to for working conditions to improve across the country.”

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