There’s a ubiquitous image hanging in the windows of restaurants throughout Toronto: “now hiring” signs.
Since the sudden reopening of patios in June and indoor dining in July, bars and restaurants are scrambling to staff up for full service.
After laying off or furloughing so many food service workers during dragged-out lockdowns, a lot of owners and managers are now complaining that they’re having trouble bringing them back.
That’s become a popular news story angle: restaurants forced to reduce hours or have managers fill in on dishwasher duty. You can read about restaurants like Bombay Snack Bar that have gone on hiatus due to “acute staff shortage.” You see news about the Lakeview no longer being a round-the-clock diner, changing its slogan from “Always open” to “As always open as can be.” You might hear it from a host turning you away from what looks like an empty table on a patio.
It’s not all anecdotal. According to association and advocacy group Restaurants Canada, based on data from Statistics Canada, there are nearly 230,000 fewer workers in the food service sector than before COVID.
And according to a soon-to-be-published survey of their 38,000 members (mostly restaurant operators), 80 per cent of restaurants say they’re having a hard time hiring back-of-house workers – cooks, kitchen staff, dishwashers, etc. – and 67 per cent are having difficulty hiring front-of-house – waiters, servers, bartenders and hosts.
That difficulty has led to a pervasive narrative in conversations between restaurant owners and on social media: that ‘because of CERB’ (often used interchangably with CRB, the government employment insurance program that replaced it), “nobody wants to work anymore.”
But there’s another side to the worker shortage argument that’s becoming louder as a new restaurant labour movement gains steam during the pandemic: it’s not that people don’t want to work, they just don’t want to work at a job that underpays, abuses and treats them as disposable.
“I don’t think there’s a labour shortage at all,” says A E Persaud of the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund (TRWRF). “If there is a resistance, it’s not a resistance to work – it’s a refusal of exploitative work.”
Rebecca Gordon, a member of the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, agrees that the conversation around restaurant work has to – and is starting to – change.
“Rather than framing it as a labour shortage issue, [I’d say] it’s really just a shortage of restaurants that provide decent work,” she says, “restaurants that are respectful and value workers as humans.”
Why restaurant workers are leaving the industry
Riley Martin has been working in cafes and bars since university.
“My entire adult working life has been serving coffee or serving small plates at tables,” they say.
Martin (who uses she/her and they/them pronouns) says she’s worked jobs full of safety violations. They’ve worked at places with abusive managers and at places where they were asked to put in hours and hours of extra work for no pay. She’s also worked jobs that feel fun and rewarding.
When the pandemic hit, they were working at the Bellwoods Brewery bottle shop, which was one of the better service industry jobs they’ve had in Toronto. But last August, like so many other restaurant workers, they were laid off. Normally they’d take the next job available, but there were fewer jobs than ever – and the pandemic left them feeling burnt out, anxious and questioning the future.
“I’m turning 30 next year, so I’ve been thinking about what my long-term goals are,” Martin says. “I knew I wanted to teach voice lessons, to focus more on music, and I was thinking: how can I do that and not let my day job take over my life?”
The answer was outside the restaurant business. Instead, they got a job in another budding industry: cannabis retail. It’s still a customer-focused job, but there’s a clear work/life balance, a steady wage, opportunities for advancement and – for the first time – benefits. They just went to the dentist for the first time in years.
“Having a little bit of time away helped me have the clarity to make that decision,” they say. “[The drawbacks of restaurant work] aren’t always easy to see when you’re caught up in the grind. I think having a forced break has made a lot of people say ‘I’m worth more than this.’”
Martin is one of many restaurant workers who have made a similar decision during the pandemic – rather than choosing not to work, they’re choosing to work elsewhere.
The numbers seem to support it. The general Ontario unemployment rate actually fell in July from 9.4 per cent in January 2021 to 7.5 per cent in July, according to a recent StatsCan report, and employment rose by 35,000 in accommodation and food services .
It’s hard to find much specific data in Canada about job-switching during the pandemic, but organizations like One Fair Wage have been tracking the phenomenon in the United States. It finds that many workers have left because of low pay, instability and lack of support for women and mothers. It’s also an industry with little mental health or addiction support, issues that are pervasive in restaurant work.
You can see similar things happening here. Worker retention was already an issue in the restaurant industry before the pandemic, says James Rilett, a vice president of Restaurants Canada.
“We had been noticing mainly young people and folks who had traditionally worked in restaurants not choosing restaurant jobs or just not working,” he says.
Restaurant owners and industry groups have been quick to point the finger at a lack (or, in the case of EI, surplus) of government support and training programs, but workers are pointing to issues like unstable work, wages below the cost of living, especially in a big city like Toronto, and health and safety concerns – a bigger issue during the pandemic.
Gordon was a general manager of a restaurant herself before leaving the industry last summer and enrolling at the University of Guelph to study hospitality and restaurant working conditions.
“I loved the restaurant industry so much,” she says. “I was working minimum 60-hour weeks because I cared about the restaurant I worked for so much. Then the pandemic hit and I felt a bit disposable. The restaurant industry is so precarious at the best of times – but throw in a pandemic and it makes it so much harder.”
Workers talk amongst themselves about working conditions and wages, but the narratives being told in media and advocated by industry and lobbying groups are usually framed around restaurant owners and operators. And that’s a group that isn’t always pro-worker, sometimes arguing against things like increased minimum wage and other supports.
“There used to be a fear you couldn’t speak up for fear of being blacklisted,” she says. “Hopefully, restaurant workers are feeling safer to speak up about poor conditions.”
A new restaurant labour movement
Gordon’s coalition and the TRWRF are two of many restaurant worker groups that have arisen or taken on new prominence during the pandemic. Others, like The Full Plate and Not 9-5 focus on social services, mental health, workplace development, advocacy and peer support.
Restaurant jobs have been notoriously hard to organize. Workers are spread out across a multitude of positions that can differ wildly from each other, with a wide gulf between a coffee shop, a fast-food joint and a five-star restaurant. It also encompasses many different kinds of work in both front-of-house and back-of-house positions – roles that are often pitted against each other through inconsistent work conditions, wages and tips.
And many service jobs are temporary and flexible, something that workers – many of whom are actors and musicians and artists – can see as an incentive.
But, like gig and freelance work, restaurant work has become an important frontier in the labour movement. With so many companies divesting from physical office space, work is becoming more flexible for everyone, which has led to a rethinking around the rights of part-time and temporary workers.
Groups like these, along with similar ones in the U.S. like One Fair Wage and High Road Restaurants, are addressing issues that a union would without explicitly calling it unionization. During the pandemic, that’s meant working together and coming up with specific, actionable demands.
The Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition gathered 20,000 signatures for a petition sent to the House of Commons to specifically focus on workers.
“Our restaurants have received compensation from the government in the form of rental assistance for small businesses, wage subsidies and a pause of commercial evictions in order to keep the industry viable,” they wrote. “All the while, the particular issues, realities, and priorities of the workers in our industry have been overlooked.”
In it, they asked for a change in EI rules to permanently include precarious workers, a clear definition of fair work hours and wages, and adequate health protection for restaurant workers. They plan to launch another petition about extending EI, but the upcoming snap federal election may delay it.
“There’s a need for workers’ voices to be heard across the country,” Gordon says. “That could really start to change things.”
The opposite of name and shame
The rights of restaurant workers is an issue that goes beyond just restaurant workers. Customers also have to be included, because they’re stakeholders too.
Food service is the only industry with a separate sub-minimum wage, and Ontario and Quebec are now the only two provinces with one after British Columbia’s lower liquor server wage was eliminated in June. The wage is nearly two dollars less for service workers with the idea that tips cover the difference – meaning customers are essentially subsidizing wages. So they should also be invested in work conditions.
Tipping is its own can of worms. It creates a power dynamic between workers and customers that can facilitate racism and other discrimination and abuse, and also widens the gap between front-of-house (who make tips) and back-of-house (who don’t).
The pandemic has caused some restaurants to change how they distribute tips among workers, while others – like Edulis, Marben and Burdock – have eliminated tips to pay a guaranteed living wage to all workers.
That involves raising prices, though, and customers tend to balk at that – even if it’s what they would have paid anyway.
Raising awareness of working conditions could cause diners to become more attuned to what exactly they’re paying for, and knowing which restaurants and bars treat workers well could even be a selling point. Currently, the only official certification that exists is from the Ontario Living Wage Network. Two Toronto spots are officially recognized: Emma’s Country Kitchen and Left Field Brewery.
“Wages make up a considerable portion of our operating costs, and so this decision was not one that was taken lightly,” said Left Field founders Mandie and Mark Murphy in a note on their website when they became certified six months ago. “That said, we have always felt that the brewery only succeeds if the people within it are successful, and this includes earning wages that support a happy, healthy lifestyle.”
The Coalition allows restaurants to “partner” with them, which essentially acts as a pledge to improve worker conditions. Doing so earns them a spot on their Instagram account, where restaurants like Bar Vendetta, Bernhardt’s and Northern Belle have shown their support.
Persaud has also collected a public list of restaurants and bars providing living wages or wages above minimum and sub-minimum wage. The link at TRWRF’s page includes spots like Burdock Brewery, Honest Weight, Paradise Grapevine and Grape Witches.
Putting the list together wasn’t easy. Sometimes a restaurant will choose not to be included for fear of retaliation from customers (which happened to Emma’s Country Kitchen when it was reported they were raising menu prices to better pay workers); sometimes the wages are inconsistent among employees and they don’t want to be transparent about that. And sometimes a restaurant will be highlighted as worker-friendly before the whisper network will dig up an abusive employer or other issue – and non-disclosure agreements are pervasive in the industry.
But that’s one of the reasons why transparency is so necessary, Persaud says. “If we can create a baseline for what constitutes decent work, then we can hold employers to that standard.”
A pandemic labour pivot
In the meantime, the pandemic is causing an industry-wide rethinking. Everything from profit margins to staffing, menu, hours, payment systems – and, yes, labour – are on the table.
That makes right now an especially experimental period, with multiple models of restaurants being tested out alongside the status quo. Some, like Marben (which is on Persaud’s list), have eliminated tips and instituted a health benefit account for employees. Others, like Wise Bagel (formerly Wise Bar), have even made permanent pivots that allow more stability – which can be passed onto workers.
Among those, Oyster Boy has been one of the most progressive. One Fair Wage data found that spots with better working conditions have better worker retention, but the long-running spot near Trinity Bellwoods takes that principle one step further: during the most recent lockdown, founder Adam Colquhoun made all his workers part owners.
Oyster Boy was running on a skeleton crew at the time, subsisting on takeout and delivery. Dealing with a personal issue at the beginning of this year, Colquhoun went up north for a couple of weeks and left the business in the staff’s hands, telling them to run it however they saw fit. During that time, they set all sorts of sales records.
“They fucking rocked it,” he says over a pint at the restaurant. “So in early March, I decided to give them each five per cent of the restaurant as a reward. Not for staying, not for any future stuff, but for the work they did. ‘Thank you so much, you saved Oyster Boy.’”
Now, those six workers together own 30 per cent while he owns 70. The servers he’s hired since then make $17 an hour (about $3 over the minimum wage and $5 over the sub-minimum) plus tips. Anyone who makes it past the three month mark gets a $1,000 bonus. They’re also paid for training, which is unusual in an industry where staging – essentially unpaid internships for chefs – is the norm.
Colquhoun says the goal – already accomplished – is to get everyone over the poverty line, which in Toronto is $22.08 an hour. The fact that so many restaurants don’t is a major problem – especially considering how much of restaurant work could be considered a skilled trade.
According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, the median wage in hospitality was $456 in July 2021 compared to the $300 a week workers can get from CRB until October. That barely covers the cost of living in Toronto, which refutes the idea that workers are staying home because the benefits are so comfortable – essentially a variation on the stigmatizing “welfare queen” myth that’s existed since the 80s.
It’s definitely a tough time for restaurants, Colquhoun says, but that’s what the wage subsidy is for.
“I don’t agree with making money off people if those people are unhappy or if they have an unhappy workplace,” he says. “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.”
“As far as restaurants that can’t afford to pay the people because they’re not that busy, then they shouldn’t be in business,” he continues. “There’s too many restaurants in the city anyway.”
Colquhoun says restaurants should get more comfortable with passing the cost of decent work along to the customer if necessary, and that dining out should be treated as a special occasion rather than an everyday thing.
Martin compares it to the “compassion fatigue” that exists in fields like health care. There’s a lot of emotional labour in serving and that’s intensified during the pandemic. Restaurant workers, covered in PPE, risk their health to give diners a sense of normalcy and fun – to risk the virus so that diners can forget there is one.
“The idea is to kill them with kindness,” they say. “But we only have so much kindness to give.”
But for groups like Gordon’s, the goal is not to push people away from the restaurant industry – it’s to make the work better so that they stay.
“We would love if everyone who enters the restaurant industry stays forever,” she says. “The conditions are not there right now, which is why so many people are leaving: people are realizing they have the right to refuse bad work.
“But we want the restaurant industry to survive. That’s why it’s time for working conditions to improve across the country.”