Retailers, restaurants short staffed as Omicron spreads in Sask.

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The Retail Council of Canada says a recent spike in sick workers is causing some small and rural businesses to close temporarily. (Natalie Maerzluft/Reuters - image credit)
The Retail Council of Canada says a recent spike in sick workers is causing some small and rural businesses to close temporarily. (Natalie Maerzluft/Reuters - image credit)

While businesses in Saskatchewan are allowed to stay open without restrictions, many are doing so with fewer workers.

The hospitality and retail industries are among those reporting sweeping staff shortages, as more workers test positive for the highly-contagious COVID-19 Omicron variant.

The ownership group for Leopold's Taverns is currently facing that challenge in four provinces.

"As we've moved into January, we have been dealing with a number of staff testing positive for COVID, which has resulted in staff shortages," said Matt Pinch, president and CEO of Leo's Group.

Leo's Group employs 500 workers, operating 16 Leopold's Taverns and two Victoria's Taverns across Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

As of Jan. 11, Saskatchewan is the only province where Leo's Group businesses are open without restrictions such as capacity limits. Pinch said he's grateful for that, and the government's recent change to shorten some self-isolation periods.

"A small victory is the shortening of the quarantine times to from 10 days to five. That has certainly helped because a lot of our staff, while testing positive, have had no symptoms," he said.

Retail facing similar woes

The spike in sick workers is also being felt in front-facing retail and entertainment businesses.

Tim Schultz is the CEO and co-owner of Local & Fresh, a family-run grocery store in Regina.

"We've certainly had a higher percentage, than probably we've had for a long time, of a couple of sick days here and there for different staff members," said Schultz, who also works in the store.

He said the business has been able to stay open because of help from family, and a good number of casual and part-time staff adding hours.

The reality right now is that stores are having to close for short periods of time or having to reduce the services that they're presently providing. - John Graham, Retail Council of Canada

Larger businesses are also feeling the pinch. Cineplex Entertainment confirmed with CBC News that its Saskatoon movie theatres are operating with fewer staff.

"Similar to other businesses in Saskatoon, our team is seeing an increase in absenteeism from theatre employees who are unable to work due to illness," said Melissa Pressacco, director of communications for Cineplex, in an email Tuesday.

She said the company's health and safety team conducted a "full investigation" and found no evidence of workplace transmission.

Industry groups concerned

The Retail Council of Canada (RCC) says members have reported up to 25 per cent absenteeism due to COVID-19 within the last week.

John Graham, the RCC director of government relations for the Prairies, said the shortage is most felt in small businesses and rural communities.

"There's less available staffing to transfer between stores or to single business," Graham said.

"The reality right now is that stores are having to close for short periods of time or having to reduce the services that they're presently providing."

Graham said it's particularly difficult to backfill quickly for specialized skills, such as pharmacists, within a grocery store.

"They can't shift from the produce department into the pharmacy. Or if you're a meat cutter or you're a baker. Those skills require specific training that help you do that role that can't easily be quickly replaced," he said.

Graham added that while there are no blessings with a pandemic, this time of year is usually slower for retailers and allows room to operate with fewer staff when people call in sick.

Staying open for business

Both the Retail Council of Canada and Hospital Saskatchewan say members want businesses to remain open, without restrictions.

"We're in an even tougher position than we were even a year ago. Debt has accumulated. There's a number of other pressures that have emerged. The staffing issues being one of them," said Jim Bence, president and CEO of Hospitality Saskatchewan.

Bence said owners who received government support previously, some by way of loans, are still digging out.

"When you take advantage of those loans hoping that it will help you sort of get to the next month, that now just becomes debt that you have to pay," he said.

Bence told CBC News the group is in talks with the provincial government about other ways to support the industry, including bringing back a cap on fees for third-party delivery services and higher commissions from VLTs.

Highly-tested industry

Bence says hospitality remains one of the most "highly-tested" industries for COVID-19. He applauded the easy access to rapid testing in Saskatchewan, as staff members are able to test frequently.

"If somebody does test positive, well, of course they stay home. I think that there's a positive for the industry," Bence said.

"We do hear stories of hotel or restaurants having to close temporarily completely for a week or so, just so that they can get their staff back, you know, but that's those are few and far between right now."

WATCH | Respirologist Dr. Samir Gupta shows how to accurately use a COVID-19 rapid test.

He said the pandemic has compounded issues for the province's "extremely shallow" labour pool.

Right now, some hotels in the province are closing whole floors in order to meet service demands with current staffing.

"We've got to go somewhere in order to find those employees. And of course, we've got to go outside of our own borders now," he said.

In November, the government of Saskatchewan launched the Hard-to-Fill Skills pilot project, to help bring in foreign workers for industries facing "significant recruitment challenges."

Bence said the first workers are expected to arrive within four months, and will be a "game changer" for the hospitality industry when big events resume at full capacity.

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