Halifax restaurant workers know the real reason for the labour shortage | The Coast Halifax

Halifax restaurant workers know the real reason for the labour shortage

After years of full-time work but not being able to make ends meet, cooks and other back-of-house staff can’t afford to stay in the hospitality industry.

When talking about the labour shortage plaguing Halifax hotels and restaurants, a key voice is often left out of the conversation: The workers themselves.

Harpreet Jagdeo has a passion for food; they’ve loved cooking since they were a kid. And they love Halifax. But after working in this city’s restaurant industry for years and barely managing to make ends meet, Jagdeo just couldn’t take it any longer. It got to the point where they were working three kitchen jobs and yet couldn’t afford to take the bus. “I couldn't make it anymore. I couldn't do it. I couldn't struggle and constantly worry about when my next paycheck was gonna come—and I was burnt out,” Jagdeo says. “I didn't want to trade my passion for that anymore.”

The chef left Halifax and moved home to Vancouver in search of better wages in 2019. “The kitchen work [in Halifax] is plenty, but the money is awful, awful, awful,” they say. The most Jagdeo made here was $18 an hour, but they were “put through the ringer to even get that much—and 18 bucks an hour is pennies.” (The living wage in Halifax is $23.50 an hour, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). The second-highest wage they received was $16.50, and that was for running kitchens: Head chef, sous chef and kitchen manager roles. Jagdeo quit the industry entirely last November.

In Jagdeo’s experience, restaurant kitchens can be “toxic hellholes” rife with misogyny and racism. That—combined with working on their feet for 16-plus hours a day for pennies, and no benefits or vacation—just stopped being worth it. “I had to make the decision to step away. I’m glad I did,” Jagdeo says. “Don’t get me wrong: I really really miss working in a kitchen, I just don’t think I’ll ever do it again, just because I can’t make it. There’s not enough money in it.”

But Jagdeo isn’t the only kitchen worker in Halifax who’s had to press pause on their dream. Many of their friends have given up on cooking in Halifax—or working in restaurants at all. In the past months, local restaurant owners have sounded the alarm on an unprecedented labour shortage in the industry, resulting in shortened hours and shrinking menus. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, Nova Scotia had 4,065 job vacancies in the food service and accommodation sector in the second quarter of 2022—a 48% increase from the first quarter.

Staffing shortages have been attributed to restaurants struggling to rehire people after pandemic layoffs, fewer easily exploitable immigrants, and the classic refrain: Nobody wants to work anymore.

But in the news coverage of the labour shortage, one voice is almost always missing from the conversation: The workers themselves.

“It makes me laugh when I see news stories about restaurant owners complaining about not being able to find workers, and how no one wants to work, and all this kind of bullshit,” Jagdeo says. “People are willing to work, but they're not willing to work for free anymore. I don't want to work 18 hours a day for 14 bucks an hour when I have a culinary background and I know what I'm worth.”

In Nova Scotia, the average hourly wage for workers in the food service and accommodation sector is the lowest of any industry. In September, according to Statistics Canada, the average wage was $16.46 an hour, compared to $27.43 for workers across all sectors.

Working as a server at a large hotel downtown, Julianne Steeves made $13.85 an hour pushing the room service cart, collecting dishes and waitressing in the restaurant. When the border opened and tourists flooded back to the city, she went from serving a handful of people per day to hundreds, experiencing the overburdened hospitality industry first hand. “We were always understaffed,” she says. “ I was just exhausted—I was walking like 15,000 steps before noon.”

In April, she left the hotel for an office job where the hours are consistent, the pay is better and the public is less hostile. “It’s just a really chaotic industry, and every time I got off a shift I felt my head spinning,” she says. “My job now isn't the most fulfilling job in the world, but it doesn't make my head spin at the end of the day.”

Steeves is a people person and loves serving, but like Jagdeo, the long days on her feet stopped being worth it for a wage that barely paid the bills. She says many people she worked with came to the same decision, leaving the industry for more predictable hours and sustainable pay. “There's a real feeling in that industry that we're treated as expendable, but we're not expendable to the functioning of the places we work,” Steeves says.

So how can restaurant and hotel owners solve the labour shortage? According to the workers who left the industry, it’s pretty simple: “Pay people better and treat people better,” Steeves says. “Pay people more and they'll be happy to work for you. Pay people more and it'll attract the right people who want to stay there.”

Jagdeo explains that before the pandemic, restaurant owners had the upper hand with a wide pool of candidates begging for jobs. Now, it’s the workers who have choices, and owners need to make their establishments more attractive if they want to staff up.“It isn't just providing a pizza party or giving a pat on the back. It's actually making sure folks have a livable wage,” they say.

“If someone's going to work knowing that this is the one job that they can work and they can make rent and also have food at the end of the day, that alone speaks volumes.” They add owners need to treat restaurants “like an actual business,” with benefits and vacation. “If you take care of people, they're going to take care of your business.”

The chef doesn’t want to deter people from the food industry; some of the best connections they’ve made have been in kitchens and the work can be extremely rewarding. Rather, they want people to fight for change: “Keep rallying for what you want, what you need and what you deserve,” Jagdeo says. “It's going to be a better industry for it.”