Local businesses forced to close for days because they can’t find staff

Cathy Dobson

When Karen Axani recalled staff to the Cromwell Grill after the last lockdown all her veteran waitresses returned to work.

But when she opened a new patio to accommodate COVID -19 protocols, she couldn’t find any new and additional hires, she said.

So she put in extra long days and asked her daughters to help out.

“I hired a cook who I thought was a perfect fit and never heard from them again,” she says.  “It was the strangest thing.”

Normally, the Cromwell Grill has no trouble finding employees. But the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for small businesses, Axani said.

Many local operators are having difficulty finding staff, especially in the service sector, said Mark Perrin, executive director of Tourism Sarnia-Lambton.

“Some businesses have started to take extreme measures and provide incentives to attract employees, like bonuses for a commitment to stay,” he said. “It’s a big conversation that we are all having.”

Kitchen workers are “jumping from job to job looking to make more money,” he said. “It’s like there are price wars going on.”

Mexico, an eatery and bar in downtown Sarnia, has been closed for six weeks for lack of kitchen staff, said co-owner Nathan Colquhoun.

“We knew our chef was leaving and we looked for someone new. But the whole thing has been difficult to navigate,” he said. “The restaurant industry got hit especially hard because of all the protocol changes and health restrictions.”

Six different cooks accepted jobs at Mexico and all bowed out; some saying the changing COVID-19 rules are too stressful. Though finding servers is easier, a shortage of kitchen staff leaves their shifts vulnerable as well, Colquhoun said.

But he’s optimistic the worst is over, with Mexico re-opening this week with newly hired chef Doug Wong in the kitchen.

Colquhoun is also co-owner of Burger Rebellion and The Refined Fool brewery and taproom. Staffing was a challenge this summer but they remained open, he said.

“We’re all so tired of guessing what’s going to happen next with COVID. If this has taught me one thing, it’s that contingency plans aren’t worth making.”

Next door at Ups N’ Downs pub, owner John Mallon kept his full-time staff kept on as much as possible during the lockdowns, but part-timers were laid off.

Getting them to come back has been almost impossible. Government programs including CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit), which was replaced by the Canadian Recovery Benefit (CRB), are so generous “people are making more on government handouts laying on the beach than they would coming back to work,” he said.

“Where’s the motivation? My take is that if I had experience as a line cook or a waiter/bartender, I would be in the driver’s seat right now.

“You could auction off your services to the highest bidder because so many are desperate for employees.”

Axani, Colquhoun and Mallon said they all have friends in the service industry hurt by employee shortages, which is causing customers to wait longer for meals, taxicabs and other services. And things only got worse when university students returned to school this month.

As a result, restaurants are closing one or two days a week to give exhausted employees a break, Mallon said.

“I think (government programs that allow people to stay at home) was a righteous thing to do when the economy shut down and many, many people needed a safety net.

“We are, however, for all intents and purposes, back up and running. So why are we subsidizing people not to work when there is plenty of work to be had?” he asked.

“Could it be the impending election?”