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COVID-19: Saskatchewan restaurants struggle to stay open amid staffing challenges

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WATCH: The restaurant industry is no stranger to the pains of the pandemic and the Omicron variant is forcing the industry to face a virus hurting people's livelihoods – Jan 11, 2022

Several restaurants in Saskatchewan are being forced to halt dine-in service, reduce hours or temporarily close altogether as another wave of COVID-19 rears its head to take another bite out of an already chewed-up industry.

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Eateries like Primal in Saskatoon, as well as the Keg and Smoke’s Poutinerie in Regina, have had to reduce their levels of service in recent weeks.

Primal owner and chef Christie Peters told Global News that their organization’s desire to be a community leader in pandemic safety means, in part, frequent testing of employees. Unfortunately, last week that meant three staff members were detected as being COVID-19-positive at around the same time.

“I’ll never forget. It was Friday. It was one of our busiest days and we had to call all of the reservations and cancel,” Peters explained, adding that while she’s planning to reopen dine-in service Monday the longer term future is less certain.

“Every day we wake up we get everyone’s test results, we see what we have for staff and we make a call about whether we’ll be able to open safely or not.”

Read more: Omicron expected to fuel workplace ‘absenteeism’ in January as cases surge

Restaurants Canada Western Vice-President Mark von Schellwitz said the pandemic is exacerbating a labour problem that existed before COVID-19 took its first bite out of the industry.

“We know we have several restaurants on the brink hoping there’s not one more big outbreak or shutdown, because they’re that close to going under,” he said.

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“And some restaurateurs have been forced to close because they don’t have enough staff to operate or they’ve had to move to takeout and delivery, which takes a lot less staff to operate. However, that’s not as profitable for the restaurant as indoor dining.”

Von Schellwitz added that “a huge shift in demographics” is leading to fewer people choosing the restaurant industry for entry-level jobs.

“Our industry is very reliant on new entries into the workforce. A lot of our staff are under the age of 25. If we were to have the same entry-level into the labour market of youth we did a decade ago there’d be 100,000 more staff to choose from,” he said.

“We haven’t gotten back to those employment levels pre-COVID. The stops and starts of restrictions is certainly causing some people to look elsewhere for opportunities so they’ve had an impact as well on our ability to staff.”

Von Schellwitz said Restaurants Canada and its members would like to see a “sector-specific stream of immigration” for the foodservice industry.

He also said many member restaurateurs in Saskatchewan are also calling for the reimplementation of the delivery fee cap that was put in place earlier this year. It expired at the end of April.

“What we’re hearing from a lot of members is the debt. How much longer can you continue to accumulate debt without that coming back to bite you?” he said.

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Read more: Regina Symphony Orchestra postpones performances due to COVID-19

Peters detailed a number of steps she’s taking to maintain a stable and consistent workforce.

“We’re trying to be leaders in the culinary scene making sure that we’re paying a living wage, and offering health benefits and shorter hours,” she explained.

“We offer lots of work-life balance, and mentorship and try to offer meaning behind the work with lots of learning.”

She said, though, that she hears a lot from her peers in the industry about “huge” shortages of cooks and servers and added that even with a stable staff the pandemic is likely to make the short-term future challenging.

“I don’t know if this is going to be a rough patch or if we’re going to be doing takeout one day, dine-in the next and then go back to take out, and then maybe have to close our doors for a little while,” Peters said.

“So we’re ready to weather the storm but it is definitely not business as usual.”

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