Labour shortage amid Depression-level unemployment: Businesses struggle to hire back workers getting CERB
|National Post 28 May 2020 at 19:28|
When Johnny Tzouvelakos and his partner at LaSalle Drive-in decided to provide free meals to hospitals across Montreal during the pandemic, he was heartened to see the response from his staff.
They showed up to help prepare the food every morning for two months on a purely voluntary basis.
Not among them, however, were the four employees who quit shortly after the federal government announced its crisis support program in late March.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was designed for workers who had lost their jobs or saw dramatically reduced hours because of stay-at-home orders to contain COVID-19.
But Tzouvelakos never had to lay off anyone; the four LaSalle employees left to rely on the federal payments instead, citing the dangers of remaining on the job in a city that would become the virus’s Canadian epicentre.
“People had the notion that they were going to be getting $2,000 for staying home,” he said. “My partner was saying, ‘People are leaving, what are we going to do?’ At first I said, ‘We should close.’ “
They stayed open, but Tzouvelakos’s experience underscores the unusual labour dynamics created by the COVID-19 lockdowns, CERB, and the slow re-igniting of the economy taking place now.
Amid Depression-level unemployment, some employers in low-wage industries are actually struggling to fill jobs, business groups say.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) says a third of its members report having trouble staffing up, as potential employees fear returning to work amid the ongoing pandemic, while still able to rely on federal emergency benefits.
The shortage of labour is a growing concern
“Businesses are starting to re-open and as they do, the shortage of labour is a growing concern,” said Dan Kelly, the CFIB president. “I fully expect that we are going to have record unemployment and a shortage of labour at the same time.”
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has heard similar stories from its members, chiefly in industries like retail, hospitality and agriculture where wages are low, said Leah Nord, the chamber’s senior director of workforce strategies.
She said the availability of benefits is only one factor keeping people at home and “we can’t dismiss concerns around health and safety, concerns around child care and elder care.”
CERB — meant for people who made at least $5,000 in the previous 12 months and were put out of work by the pandemic — pays $500 per week, the equivalent of $12.50 an hour over a 40-hour work week.
That’s slightly more than the minimum wage in four provinces.
“I get it,” said Kelly. “If you’re at or near minimum wage and your bills are now being paid by the CERB benefit, you’re not going to make much more by going back to work.”
And, he said, those people have been told for weeks to shelter inside or risk contracting a dangerous new disease.
Still, both business groups suggested the federal government will have to eventually scale back or end CERB to increase the incentive for people to return to work.
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, does not believe reluctance to rejoin the workforce is a widespread problem. But “adjustments” to the benefits programs to ensure people on CERB don’t suffer a drop in income when they go back to their jobs would help — as will solid efforts by employers to make workplaces safe, he said.
“The vast majority of workers know that whatever benefit they’re getting right now from the government, these benefits are not going to be in perpetuity,” said Yussuff. “If you can have your job back, there will be far better security at the end of the day for yourself and your family.”
Marielle Hossack, a spokeswoman for Carla Qualtrough, the employment, workforce development and disability inclusion minister, said workers who have qualms about the safety of their working conditions should discuss that with their employer.
“Canadians applying for the CERB cannot voluntarily quit their job,” said Hossak. “If and when it becomes possible for Canadians to safely go back to work, they should do so.”
The CERB program has been widely praised as an efficient, if hugely expensive, way to offset the lockdown’s devastating economic effects, which put millions of Canadians out of work. Claimants can receive the payments for up to 16 weeks, until October. But there has been controversy over some aspects of its administration, including directives to officials that they should approve any claimant who quits voluntarily and adjudicate “contentious issues” later – despite rules to the contrary.
We can’t dismiss concerns around health and safety, concerns around child care and elder care
Tzouvelakos had 40 employees when the lockdown in Quebec began in mid-March and planned to keep them all, with a steady stream of take-out and delivery customers keeping his business in the Lasalle borough of Montreal afloat.
The four who quit cited fears about working amid the pandemic, and the need to look after children whose schools were closed. He told the four recently they would be replaced if they did not return to work now, and two are back.
But Tzouvelakos isn’t dwelling on their situation. He, partner George Tsimiklis and high-school friend Glenn Kelly, split the more than $20,000 cost of providing 65 meals a day to employees of various hospitals around Montreal.
The response of those beleaguered health-care workers to the daily deliveries is something he says he won’t soon forget.
“Food makes people happy,” said Tzouvelakos. “When they see food, it changes their mood. If you saw these people coming out of the hospitals, they were ecstatic.”
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