Volunteers step up as hospitality workers vanish

Volunteers fill worker void

On a sunny Monday, there’s a busy lunchtime rush at PKLS Burgers on Cowrie Street in Sechelt. It’s keeping co-owner Tanya Lapsansky in the kitchen, her staff hard at work, and a new face at the window taking orders.

It’s Joe Sawer’s first day, although he’s actually a volunteer. Sawer is just one of the Coasters Helping Coasters volunteers, a new initiative started in the first week of August in Sechelt.

As COVID-19 restrictions began being lifted, a group of golfing friends hosted a barbecue where the main topic of conversation was the struggles of local restaurants, particularly being unable to find staff to work. The retirees decided to take matters into their own hands, and offer up their time in whatever way the restaurants needed them, whether hosting, cleaning tables, food preparation or acting as delivery drivers.

Instead of an hourly pay rate (minimum wage in B.C. is $15.20), business owners can make a suggested donation of $10-12 per hour to the food bank or Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s partly because of tourism,” volunteer Lezlie Smith said, citing the negative impacts of long waits for service. “And partly, we want to help with businesses who are really trying hard.”

“And we want to be able to go to the restaurants, too,” volunteer Sandy Kay added.

So the nine volunteers approached the Sechelt Downtown Business Association (SDBA) to see if there was an appetite for their help.

As of Aug. 9, volunteers have put in shifts at Batch 44 and PKLS Burgers, The Bakery has asked for volunteers, and other businesses are interested, Theressa Logan, the executive director of SDBA, said. First, the business owners have to reach out to their insurance providers to ensure they are covered.

According to the Ministry of Labour, B.C.’s Employment Standards Act does not apply to volunteers, and the same is generally true for the Workers Compensation Act. Still, a business should seek legal advice on any liabilities, and whether an arrangement with an individual qualifies as a volunteer or employee under the acts, or if it is in violation of a collective agreement that may dictate a laid off employee must return to work before a volunteer can be used. If a worker was laid off and a volunteer was brought in to do the same duties, that may be found to be contrary to the act, a ministry spokesperson said by email.

Staffing problems are not unique to the Sunshine Coast.

B.C. restaurants and hotels are operating at a reduced capacity because of low staffing levels, said Grant Olson, who runs the Strathcona Hotel and entertainment complex in downtown Victoria.

The B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association (BCRFA) estimates about 45,000 workers have been lost since the pandemic began — about 190,000 are needed to operate the province’s restaurants at a normal capacity.

The seismic shift in employment is being traced to several factors, from extended government benefits to apathy, burnout and a preference for more stable employment in sectors not so susceptible to the ups and downs of COVID regulations.

Olson said the industry has paid above B.C.’s minimum wage of $15.20 an hour for some time. Recently, he saw an ad from a restaurant offering dishwashers $23 an hour.

“I don’t know exactly where they’ve [workers] have all gone … but there isn’t a lot out there,” said Olson. The Strathcona complex normally has about 300 staff this time of year, but is short about 50. I’ve placed ads for months, with very little response.”

BCRFA president Ian Tostenson said most restaurants will have their own protocols for training, and COVID precautions will still be a focus when bringing in volunteers.. While he hasn’t heard of a similar solution of using volunteers in restaurants to alleviate the staffing shortage, he said, “That’s so cool.”

When asked what having a volunteer means for PKLS, co-owner Tanya Lapsansky said, “It means it saved us.”

Lapsansky and her partner became the new owners of PKLS on July 30, although Lapsansky worked for the business before. She said they’re quite excited and grateful to have the help of volunteers, since the staffing shortage means they’re working long hours.

“I wish I could hire him,” Lapsansky said of volunteer Joe Sawer with a chuckle. “It’s too bad that he’s not looking for a job.”

Since beginning her hiring search, only one person responded and Lapsansky hired her right away.

“It’s just been a nightmare, you know? And because we’re busy, we want to be able to maintain and grow,” she added.

Lapsansky’s not the only one to buy into the local restaurant business during the pandemic. At least five restaurants have recently opened in downtown Sechelt, and one in Davis Bay.

Logan said she’d like to thank the volunteers for stepping up to help, and hopes seeing seniors serving will inspire people to apply for jobs or volunteer themselves.

“I think the Coast is unique in that it [has] a really strong sense of community.” Logan said. “I think we just have a lot of passionate volunteers who just want to be able to go for a coffee still and not have to see their businesses who they’ve supported for so long have to shut their doors, because it’s pretty tragic.”

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