By now, you’ve probably heard that restaurants are having a difficult time finding staff. It would be hard not to have noticed. Social media is full of photos of signs posted by fast-food franchise operators apologizing for being short-staffed “because no one wants to work.” A recent survey by a restaurant-staffing firm, cited in the Washington Post, found that 25 per cent of back-of-house restaurant workers have left the industry.
The most shocking thing about that stat is that it’s not shocking. I’ve been writing about this since 2015, when chefs started asking me whether I knew any cooks. Soon they were becoming vocal about the difficulty in finding staff and complaining that applicants weren’t showing up for scheduled interviews — or that new employees routinely ghosted after one shift. This was all before working in a restaurant became a front-line pandemic job, requiring staff to risk being yelled or spit at for asking customers to put on a mask.
So when you take the low wages and high demands of restaurant work, subtract the potentially lucrative tips that no server can make right now, and add the elements of physical danger and emotional abuse, it’s no wonder that this past year has caused a quarter of the workforce to bail.
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Yes, government aid in the form of employment benefits, which enable people to stay home rather than be forced to work in an unsafe environment, is a factor too. But cooks and servers aren’t leaving the industry because they want to live off government assistance permanently. They’re leaving because the jobs keep getting worse without compensation getting better. Because they don’t feel safe. Because the employment is precarious. Because the tipping system keeps the kitchen staff earning half what the serving staff makes. If you want to cook in a “cool” restaurant, where you’re going to be learning lots from the high-profile chef, you have to live in a big, expensive city. And the pay never accounts for that.
When we go out to eat again — and we will — wouldn’t it be nice to know workers are being paid a living wage? Yet it is exhausting to play detective about a restaurant’s policies. For all the attention devoted, over the past 15 years, to where food comes from, it remains hard for diners to learn about how workers are treated.
Then I heard about the Ontario Living Wage Network. OLWN is an Ontario non-profit run by two employees who calculate living wages per region and certify businesses. Just under half the funding coming through fees; the rest is raised via philanthropy.
Some might quibble with the methodology. The OLWN incorporates the cost of food, clothing, shelter, child care, transportation, medical expenses, recreation, and modest vacations into what they consider a living wage. The formula does not include dept repayment, retirement savings, home ownership, or education savings. It’s based on a family of four with two working parents, which is larger than the average Canadian household. According to the 2016 census, there are more two-person households (32.8 per cent) and three-person households (16.1 per cent) than four-person households (15.4 per cent). That household budget might make OLWN’s bar high for employers. For consumer looking for a literal sign, though, it’s a good indicator that a restaurant is paying staff decently. It’s also helpful for workers. There’s not a lot of transparency about wages in service-industry job postings. The OLWN label is a good signal that an employer is not wasting an applicant’s time.
Currently, there are about 380 businesses registered with OLWN (including Dispatch in St. Catharines, Park Grocery Deli & Bar in Guelph, and Left Field Brewery in Toronto). But just looking at the numbers for the area where they live can help diners who want to engage restaurants in a conversation about wages. If you haven’t worked for minimum wage in a while, talking about what people are paid can be abstract. “Oh, you pay your cooks $17 an hour? What does that mean?” Well, in Muskoka, it’s pretty good. In Halton, it’s not enough.
The site posts living wages for regions all over Ontario: $16.21 in Thunder Bay, $19.42 in Haliburton, $22.08 in Toronto, and so on. Most figures are still from 2019. OLWN took a pause during the chaos of 2020, but new calculations are planned for November of this year.
Most restaurateurs are not villains. But they struggle with finding ways to fairly pay staff. For Devinder Choudhary, whose Ottawa restaurant Aiana is OLWN-certified, the choice to pay a living wage was essential. Feeling confident of his son Raghav’s talent as a chef, and wanting to back him in a restaurant, Choudhary was dismayed by what he heard about industry labour practices.
“What I saw was depressing,” says Choudhary, an accountant with no previous restaurant experience. “Workers were being paid next to nothing. There was no job security. There was no commitment to the employees. And it goes both ways. There was no commitment to employers.”
As they developed the restaurant concept, they debated compensation. Choudhary wanted a gratuity-free model with a service fee. His son wanted a traditional North American structure. After a year, Raghav relented. The lowest-paid employees at Aiana, which opened at the beginning of the pandemic, earn $20 an hour (OLWN cites $18.42 as a living wage for Ottawa). They also offer a group-benefit package, which includes health, life, and disability insurance.
“We decided that our employees, if they work 40 hours for us, they should not need to pick another job just to make rent,” says Choudhary. “Their prosperity should be a measure of our success.”
Any restaurateur trying to blame their staffing shortage on government subsidies or lazy workers needs to be asked what they pay their workers — because it’s a good bet they don’t believe that working 40 hours a week entitles employees to economic comfort or that their success should be measured by their worker satisfaction. There is no shortage of people who want to cook and serve food. They’re just tired of doing it for inadequate compensation.