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Chamber appeals to feds for help with labour

Reduced hours, burned out workers, and no relief in sight for local businesses

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With Whistler's businesses struggling to find staff and no relief in sight, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce is re-upping its advocacy efforts around the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

On Aug. 22, Whistler Chamber CEO Melissa Pace wrote to federal employment minister Patty Hajdu to highlight the issue.

"The Chamber is an avid supporter of hiring Canadians first," Pace wrote. "Unfortunately, despite significant efforts to hire Canadians, this has not filled our labour gap and businesses are struggling."

"It's not good," Pace told Pique. "When business owners come to us at the chamber emotionally distraught about the possibility of closing their doors, their staff being completely burned out, and no 'bodies' lining up for work, it's a really stressful situation."

In her letter to Hajdu, Pace highlighted two simple solutions the chamber sees that could ease the pain: extending the duration of Temporary Foreign Workers' stay and reviewing the program and application approvals by employment rates.

"Temporary Foreign Workers (are) one solution. There's many other solutions or potential solutions that we need to work on as a chamber, but also as a community," Pace said.

Technology could provide some relief in the coming years, she noted, but the biggest hurdle is tackling Whistler's housing crisis.

"They're building and planning for more affordable housing, but the timing of the construction is not filling the needs of today," Pace said.

And while the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is currently sifting through housing proposals from private developers (to be presented to council in September), those that have been presented publicly to this point have been met with fierce opposition from nearby neighbours.

Pace said it's important for those in support of such projects to speak up as well.

"What I'm hearing from many of the private developers and the RMOW is that we're hearing from a lot of people that don't want it; the problem is we're not hearing from people that want it," she said. "So we need to hear from people that want it."

Accompanying Pace's letter were letters from a handful of Whistler businesses outlining their recent struggles finding staff.

Over the last three years, the Bearfoot Bistro has had to reduce its hours and occasionally close two days a week, wrote founder Andre Saint-Jacques.

The restaurant employs 85 people annually and has unfilled positions in the kitchen all year long, he wrote. Paying overtime hours has increased the restaurant's payroll by 20 per cent.

"These things have always been ongoing, but I think in the last three years, it's been drastic," Saint-Jacques said, pointing to the restrictive TFWP as just one source of the pain.

"That and the combination of having such a shortage of housing ... it's really making it not attractive for any employees or people like labourers to come to Whistler, because it's no longer enjoyable to come and live and work in Whistler."

Many businesses have had to resort to renting entire houses for their staff, Saint-Jacques said, noting that providing housing costs the Bearfoot between $40,000 and $50,000 a year.

"It's a very serious issue and something that has to be addressed, and it's not about doing another study or something ... something has to happen and it has to happen fast," Saint-Jacques said. "People are talking about long-term things, but I think there should be some instant temporary housing."

Other letter writers included Laurence Foucher Gagnon of Crepe Montagne (eight positions unfilled this summer, significantly reduced business hours); Theresa Ginter of Nita Lake Lodge (35 positions unfilled despite increased staff housing); and Aaron Hopps of O&R Restaurants Inc., which operates five establishments in the village, one of which, La Brasserie, has had to close for the summer, resulting in a significant loss of revenue.

O&R has made significant efforts to recruit Canadians from across the country to no avail, Hopps said in an email.

"We are currently advertising on all social media platforms and advertising in markets across Canada. We have accounts on Indeed, Craigslist and Monster.com. We are also working with Whistler Personnel Solutions locally," he said.

The company hasn't had trouble finding upper and entry-level workers, but the mid-level kitchen staff are missing right now, he added.

While stories about Whistler's labour shortage often attract a similar sentiment—that businesses need only to raise wages—the issue is more complicated than that, Pace said.

"Better wages will always attract—no doubt, no question—but prices will inevitably go up, and as consumers we don't like that much either," Pace said, adding that many Whistler businesses already pay more than minimum wage.

"Our small businesses are really getting hit hard ... The labour shortage, the fuel costs are higher, higher lease rates, higher taxes overall, minimum wage is going up, and at the end of the day, the consumers are going to get hit."

It's not just a Whistler problem, either.

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, in June of 2018, B.C. had the highest job vacancy in the country at 3.8 per cent, translating into about 68,000 unfilled jobs.

The overworked front-liners of Whistler are also starting to have a wider impact.

"The trend is getting worse and in part it's the housing, and in part it's social media ... We have a reputation globally for having unaffordable housing, and so many of the workers that would normally have come here are not coming here as much as they would have before," Pace said. "They're hearing too much of the unaffordability and no housing so they're going to other places."

The lack of workers, and the lack of rest for those that are here, has also impacted service levels in the resort—not ideal in an industry fuelled by positive word-of-mouth.

"If we continue to lose our workers, we're going to lose the reputation of our community, and then we all lose," Pace said. "It's not what we want."

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