Across Yellowknife, businesses have posted help-wanted ads, placed hiring signs in windows, and scoured the internet for staff. The search has been in vain.
The shortage of available labour led a number businesses to temporarily close this month. Yellowknife’s downtown Tim Hortons, for example, shut down for several days with nobody to run it.
Raj Paneya, district manager for Tim Hortons in Yellowknife, said the restaurant’s main source of employees is usually international students. During the Covid-19 pandemic, fewer are moving to Yellowknife.
“We try to hire locals, but usually in the locals we can only find students who have limited availability,” he said.
The city’s two Tim Hortons outlets are now trying to hire from anywhere in Canada, even offering cheaper staff housing to attract potential employees. Still, Paneya said, filling vacancies is proving to be a challenge.
Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said attracting and keeping staff – long an issue for businesses in the North, where turnover is high – has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Certainly, all of the restrictions that businesses are facing have made that challenging,” she said. Yellowknife, for example, is midway through a circuit-breaker set of heightened restrictions that limit non-essential businesses to 10 customers each. Some restrictions dating to the start of the pandemic regarding travel and isolation remain in place.
“If we need to bring up labour from the south to bridge those gaps, or even contractors, all of those measures do have negative impacts on businesses and their ability to keep and attract their staff,” Everett said.
The circuit-breaker restrictions are an added obstacle, Paneya said. Tim Hortons’ uptown restaurant has closed its dine-in area, affecting sales and limiting the number of available shifts with which to attract staff. But he acknowledged the importance of measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“I wish that we recover from this difficult situation,” Paneya said, “and hopefully we can find more and better-suited people.”
Reg Drummond, owner of Yellowknife’s newly opened Hungry Wolf Restaurant, is having trouble finding experienced servers who can work during the day.
“It’s really hard to train people when they’ve already got habits,” he said of older people lacking serving experience.
“And it’s hard to hold the staff because, when you hire one and you’re not quite ready to open up, they go somewhere else.”
Drummond believes younger staff aren’t coming back to the service industry because the government is offering a greater number of more attractive jobs.
He noted his staff are worried about how they will pay their bills with a 10-day order enacting harsher Covid-19 restrictions. He estimates he will lose $26,000 in revenue he could have made otherwise.
“These politicians have never worked in this type of business or they would understand that small businesses are getting hurt the worst,” he said.
The NWT Brewing Company made a plea for staff in a Facebook post earlier this month, saying its Woodyard brewpub wouldn’t be able to continue its normal hours with current staffing levels.
In an interview with NNSL, owner and general manager Miranda Stevens reportedly described being in “crisis mode” and called for federal help.
The NWT Brewing Company did not respond to Cabin Radio’s request for an interview.
Everett said the chamber of commerce has long lobbied the territorial government to make Yellowknife a more attractive place for new residents, foreign workers, and investment.
During the pandemic, the chamber established a business resilience working group and called on various levels of government to support businesses by waiving fees and offering financial assistance.
Last week, the territorial government said businesses affected by the recent public health measures could apply for up to $5,000 in relief funding.