Relief could soon be on the way for seasonal businesses feeling the effects of Whistler's labour shortage.
Ottawa quietly approved new measures in February that would allow seasonal employers to hire as many low-skilled, temporary foreign workers (TFW) as needed provided they don't make up more than 20 per cent of the workforce. The positions would be filled for no longer than 180 calendar days under the new rules, and employers can use this exemption only once per work location.
"We are obviously really encouraged by this and we're still looking into the fine print," said Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Val Litwin.
The changes, which went into effect Feb. 19 and run until Dec. 31, 2016, largely flew under the radar and were made without a formal announcement from the Liberal government. Originally it was reported the exemption would apply only to seafood processors in Atlantic Canada, but Pam Goldsmith-Jones, MP for the Sea to Sky, confirmed all seasonal sectors were eligible.
"It's for everybody," she said. "But the business has to be able to demonstrate that it's seasonal, that it has these peaks and valleys."
What remains unclear is if Whistler's various seasonal industries — primarily the restaurant sector, which struggled mightily to fill positions last summer — would fall under the criteria to be considered seasonal.
Ru Mehta, owner of three Samurai Sushi locations across Whistler and Squamish, isn't confident his restaurants would be eligible. His businesses currently employ around a dozen Japanese temporary foreign workers.
"We pretty much have the same amount of staff year-round. We never lay anyone off," said Mehta, who was forced to close both Whistler locations on certain days last summer due to staff shortages.
An email from Employment and Social Development Canada said "seasonal is defined as when both the industry and the occupation experience significant fluctuations in labour demand between 'peak' and 'off-peak' periods, usually occurring on or around the same dates every year."
Whistler Blackcomb, which has decreased its reliance on TFWs from 10 per cent to just 1.4 per cent of its workforce, likely won't take advantage of the exemption, said VP of employee experience Joel Chevalier. WB typically uses the program to hire multilingual ski instructors, which are classified as high-skill workers.
"We committed to ourselves that we would use the TFW program as a last resort for high-skilled and high-wage workers," he wrote in an email. "We believe that we still have options and are not at the last resort yet."
Ottawa has positioned the exemption as a temporary fix while a House of Commons committee undertakes a full review of the program.
The former Conservative government granted a similar exemption last year, although it placed limits on the number of workers and capped the allowable work period at 120 days.
The controversial program first came under scrutiny in 2014 after a number of employer abuses came to light, leading to a series of major reforms. It meant seasonal employers could no longer access the program in areas where unemployment is higher than six per cent.
Goldsmith-Jones stressed that hiring Canadians remains "the No. 1 priority."
"This isn't intended to be full-steam ahead for temporary foreign workers, this is intended to understand (the program) better and hold employers accountable, as well as providing flexibility because we see that the policy itself has really caused a lot of opportunity," she added.
Mehta is hopeful the changes will also cut back on the red tape employers have to wade through, allowing for the market to quickly adapt to shifting labour needs.
"It's an onerous process. What they did to clamp down was expensive, it took a long time and there's a lot of paperwork to go through," he said. Employers will continue to pay $1000 to process each TFW. "If it becomes something where there are tons of associated fees and paperwork, and it takes forever to get (workers) in, then you have to weigh the time and the money."