Worker shortages affects Fernie businesses

Members of the Fernie business community gathered at City Hall on Aug. 24 with concerns about a worker shortage in the area.

In a community that sees more than 300,000 visitors each year and has a population of less than 5,000, businesses in Fernie are struggling to find employees.

Fernie mayor Mary Giuliano said with changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program, local businesses have been hit hard. And because of the small population, these businesses rely on such programs to meet employee demands.

In the past, employers would pay an application fee of $250 per foreign worker employed at the company, which was good for two years. Now, with changes to the federal program, that fee has increased to $1,000 per application and is only good for one year, she told The Free Press prior to the Aug. 24 council meeting.

“But reapplying doesn’t necessarily mean they will allow you to remain [in the program],” she said. “It’s pretty onerous right now for the employers.”

Members of the business community, including the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, Ann’s Independent Grocery, 7-11, A&W, Canadian Tire, Fernie Lodging Company, Park Place Lodge and the Brick House filled city council chambers on Aug. 24 at the Committee of the Whole meeting. The discussion was to update council on present labour shortage challenges facing local businesses and to seek support from the city in finding solutions and working with other levels of government.

Most Fernie businesses in the tourism and hospitality, food and beverage and retail industries, despite national advertising efforts, are operating short-staffed. Shortages as high as 45 per cent – which for some businesses is the equivalent of 30 employees – are seen in some businesses.

Matt Brazeau of the Brick House said he has job postings continuously on sites like Kijiji and EK Employment. One job posting received 1,800 views but yielded only one job applicant.

Housing remains a challenge to filling the staff shortages. Many employees are saying they have to share a multi-room home with nine or 10 people to afford living in Fernie.

A survey from the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association states, “in Fernie, renter households earning less than $22,037 [per year] and living in two-bedroom units pay an average of 93 per cent of their income each month on rent plus utilities”.

There was a discussion from city council about businesses offering staff accommodations or creating a housing cooperative. Sheila Byers of Park Place Lodge said the lodge has been advertising manager positions with accommodation available but are still not receiving applications.

Representatives from the businesses on hand also said they are paying living wages and market rates – and all said they were paying more than minimum wage, with average wages being in the $15-$17 an hour range.

Patty Vadnais, executive director of the Fernie Chamber of Commerce, said it is rare to find a chamber member not facing labour shortages.

“If we cannot find employees to fill these positions, businesses will have no choice but to reduce their hours of operation or services,” she said. “If that occurs, the whole community loses.”

The business community asked council for its support in addressing these many challenges, saying one effort can be directed at informing the federal government of the challenges seen in the community.

According to Statistics Canada, Fernie’s unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. The business representatives said they hope Fernie could qualify for an exemption to the temporary foreign worker hiring ban, similar to that received by Yellowknife.

Another approach is for the city to build policy around affordable housing. In June, the Fernie Family Housing Society presented to council asking that an updated inventory on rental and housing be completed in Fernie to help inform an updated affordable housing strategy in the city.

The Chamber of Commerce supported the request from Fernie Family Housing as businesses are indicating it is difficult for staff to find housing. The business community is also seeking council’s support in advocating for Fernie to the federal government.

Giuliano said this process will be a difficult one, saying her conversations with incumbent Conservative MP David Wilks suggest nothing is going to change from their standpoint in the foreseeable future.

“Since the writ was dropped, he is no longer an MP, so they can’t move anything right now,” Giuliano said. “However, he did talk to the [labour] minister and told him it was impacting his riding.”

Wilks said he talked about how the worker shortage was impacting Fernie and the Elk Valley, and he was told the government can’t make arbitrary changes to one area because it would impact all of Canada, Giuliano said.

“This is something that I think all candidates should be aware of as it’s an issue that really needs some attention.”

Without action now, Fernie will soon find itself in a position similar to Canmore and Whistler where restaurants and services are closing their doors in order to give staff time off.