Amid chronic staff shortage, many Yukon businesses struggle to stay open

·3 min read
Marlene Jennings owns Behind the Barn, an antique shop in Whitehorse. She says she 'can't find workers,' so she had to reduce her operating hours. (Elyn Jones/CBC - image credit)
Marlene Jennings owns Behind the Barn, an antique shop in Whitehorse. She says she 'can't find workers,' so she had to reduce her operating hours. (Elyn Jones/CBC - image credit)

Behind the Barn, an antique store in Whitehorse, used to be open six days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Now, their hours have been slashed in half.

Marlene Jennings, the store's owner, says she just doesn't have the staff to keep her doors open as long as she used to.

"I can't find workers," Jennings said. "I don't know where the people are."

Jennings says she increased her wages, offering up to $25 per hour for new employees, but is still struggling to find qualified workers.

"You know, we pulled people out of retirement to take the job," said Jennings.

She says she can't run her business with regular hours with so few staff.

"Once your store opens, you're not doing any of the other jobs," she said. "You're not stocking, you're not ordering, you're not doing your books and you're not cleaning."

Jennings is not the only business struggling with hiring. If you walk around Yukon's various communities, you'll find more than a few "help wanted" signs in store windows.

Service and retail businesses across the territory are short-staffed, according to Denny Kobayashi, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce.

Submitted by Denny Kobayashi
Submitted by Denny Kobayashi

'A perfect storm'

Kobayashi said there are many reasons behind the recent labour shortages.

"It's somewhat of a perfect storm for that sector," he said,

He cited the Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) as one of the policies that disincentivized people from getting back to work, but staffing still haven't improved since the program ended on Sept. 27, 2020 (though it was transitioned to a modified employment insurance program).

The main reason behind the current labour shortage, he said, is a mass exodus of service workers.

"There's been the issue that a number of service sector workers who were in that sector have found jobs in other sectors because they didn't have work, and they're now choosing not to return to that sector," said Kobayashi.

Housing linked to labour shortage

A lack of affordable housing is also hindering hiring efforts in the territory, according to Kobayashi, particularly in smaller communities.

"They're just trying to find any housing to be able to put their employees to work," he said.

That's certainly the case in Carmacks, Yukon, where Mayor Lee Bodie says the housing shortage is seriously hampering the local economy and the municipality's ability to attract and retain staff.

"I manage a large grocery store and we did a $1-million-renovation 10 years ago, and we still cannot open up the lower level to the public because we don't have the staff to man that section," Bodie said. "There's no place to put the people."

Bodie is currently housing some of the store's staff in his three-bedroom house.

Dave Croft/CBC
Dave Croft/CBC

Lost sales

Kobayashi says the labour shortage needs to be addressed soon because with reduced hours, come reduced sales.

"This makes their plight even more desperate," said Kobayashi. "We have heard from a number of businesses that are seriously contemplating if they can afford to keep their doors open this winter. It's very difficult."

Jennings says she's been fielding complaints from many of her antique store customers about the reduced opening hours, and it's having an effect on her sales — and morale.

"People want to come in and they make comments like 'I'm here and you're never open,' and that's really hard to hear when you're so dedicated and you work at your store," said Jennings.

For now, Kobayashi is encouraging Yukoners to shop local and help businesses survive the winter.

Jennings, for her part, is pleading with Yukoners to be patient and understanding about reduced operating hours.

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