In March 2020, as schools closed and businesses shuttered, as flights were cancelled and intensive care units began to fill, many hospitality workers experienced a sense of deja vu. Just as the 2003 SARS outbreak emptied major cities like Toronto, the COVID pandemic decimated the hospitality industry overnight. No more sports events, weddings, weekend getaways, business trips, happy hours or date nights. Within a month, the number of international arrivals to Canada fell by 54.2 percent; by the first week of April, the hotel occupancy rate across the country was below 20 percent. Workers in the hospitality sector — from concierges and hotel cleaning staff to bussers and chefs — faced mass layoffs. By May, employment in restaurants and bars dropped 55.8 percent.
The Hospitality Workers Training Centre, a not-for-profit workplace development organization, was founded in the aftermath of SARS in 2004. “When SARS hit, thousands of people lost their jobs, particularly in the accommodations sector, because the message went out that Toronto wasn’t a safe place to visit,” says executive director Mandie Abrams. HWTC responded by creating peer networks that provided workers with services like referrals, computer training, and resume revamps. The lessons from that earlier crisis helped inform the group’s approach to the upheaval of COVID.
In the spring of 2020, Abrams dug into feedback from hospitality workers who went through that initial program. “They found peer support important, talking to someone who knew the industry and knew what you were facing,” she says. But participants also said there had been a missed opportunity to upgrade their skills and help them move into other roles. With that in mind, the HWTC got to work on projects like PIVOT, a two-week program that helped people who lost jobs during the pandemic find careers in other industries.
Abrams says this current pandemic has its own lessons for the industry. “I do think we’re going to see a renaissance in tourism and hospitality. But when the industry talks about rebuilding and recovery, workers need to be a part of those conversations. Because you can’t have recovery without workers.”
You work with both management and workers. How do you bridge the needs of employers with the needs of employees?
We are always looking at labour market research and talking with management to understand their specific needs and the broader industry demands. What are their biggest pain points? What roles do they need to fill? We also help those employers raise the floor so they can improve conditions to take better care of workers and retain them. Even before COVID, high turnover was a big issue. With job seekers, our role is to help them develop the skills they need to get jobs and help them communicate their skills to potential employers.
What are the demographics of the sector?
Historically, this is a very diverse industry. It’s one of the few industries where people without high-school diplomas or post-secondary degrees can find work. And it’s one of the industries where there is a lot of opportunity to advance, where it has been possible for a dishwasher to work their way up to general manager.
It’s a predominantly female sector, and a sector that employs a significant number of newcomers and immigrants, as well as young people. These are groups that were strongly impacted by COVID: They were at high risk of getting sick and, in the case of women, they were caregivers for family members who got sick or children who couldn’t go to school. Many left the sector because of that, and that has changed the demographics somewhat.
The immigrant workforce in hospitality is very close to pre-pandemic levels now. But young people have not come back to these roles. The youth unemployment rate has remained highest among all age groups in hospitality.
What are the challenges that these specific groups of workers face that employers need to consider?
In some cases, it’s upgrading education credentials. But this is also a 24/7 industry and that means there are particular demands around childcare and elder care. Adequate transportation and affordable housing are big concerns. There are jobs at resorts, for instance, that are difficult to fill because the local area doesn’t have affordable accommodations for workers.
A lot of people who used to work in the sector have retired. A lot of people found jobs in adjacent industries where there was great demand during COVID and now they aren’t returning because they like the conditions of the new job — maybe they have more of a 9 to 5 schedule now and appreciate not having to do shift work.
These are some structural issues that the industry will have to consider. Travel is picking up, people are going out again, and there isn’t the staff to meet the demands of hotels, bars and restaurants
What do hospitality workers tell you is important to them?
I don’t think it’s different from any other industry. Will they be treated well? Are there opportunities for growth and mobility? Will they be compensated fairly and receive benefits? Outside of COVID, this is still an unpredictable industry with tiny margins and periods of slowdown — like January, when people stay home and don’t travel. A lot of employers want to give their staff stable work, but they themselves are often grasping for stability because certain conditions are out of their control.
Several Toronto restaurants have responded to the labour shortage with some fairly dramatic changes: they’ve raised wages, introduced benefits and even eliminated tipping. Are these the sort of changes that are now necessary to recruit and retain workers?
Yes. Wages, benefits, consistent scheduling, opportunities for growth and advancement, as well as targeting and removing barriers for under-utilized workforces — refugees and newcomers, persons with disabilities, students and Indigenous job-seekers — will all be part of the solution to labour shortages.
What was it like for you and the staff at the HWTC in the spring of 2020?
It was devastating. We were hearing from workers who lost jobs or who were told to go home and indefinitely wait it out, from employers who had to lay off hundreds of people all at once. It became clear to us early on we needed to rethink who we were serving. Up until then, we focused mostly on entry-level workers and helping people get into the industry. Suddenly, it was displaced workers who were coming to us. People were showing up with 15 years of experience, telling us they were afraid they had no skills.
How did you respond?
One initiative was to work with the Ontario Healthcare Housekeepers’ Association to retrain hotel room attendants as healthcare cleaners. We saw early in the pandemic that healthcare cleaners were in huge demand, and realized that hotel cleaners had very similar skill sets and could possibly transition into those jobs. We got in touch with the OHHA and they loved the idea: Hotel room cleaners are known to be hard workers with high standards. We created a five-hour online certification course that wasn’t onerous. People who had been laid off in the hospitality industry now had a path to a new sector.
We saw similar opportunities for people from hospitality to move to the automotive industry and manufacturing. Hospitality workers have people skills, they can do physically demanding work and they know how to work as a team. No one said, “Why would I hire them?” They said, “Great, how do I get those workers?”
What did that mean for workers who had been laid off, or who felt they didn’t have skills to work anywhere else?
People had lost their jobs, they were depressed, they were scared about the future. To be told they were in demand and had valuable skills was completely eye-opening.
Has that realization shifted the thinking in the hospitality industry when it comes to recruitment and retention?
I think it’s really important for the industry to better promote the fact that the hospitality sector isn’t just for people seeking entry-level work. It’s a sector where people can advance and have careers. Many of the larger companies are global, so people can travel and work around the world. I don’t think enough job seekers know about those opportunities.
There are lots of opportunities to recruit young people now and lots of advantages for doing so. We have a program called Fast Track that’s specifically for youth. They spend a few weeks with us doing certifications and soft skill development, then they have a placement with a partner. We sent one young woman in her twenties out on a placement and they loved her and hired her. Then they said to her, “You’re great. Do you have any great friends looking for work?” She recommended two friends, who now also have jobs. A five-week program that got three young people jobs? That’s a huge success.