Whistler businesses fear upcoming ski season as staffing shortages persist

·3 min read
The picturesque Resort Municipality of Whistler welcomes thousands of tourists from around the world each year.  (www.whistler.com - image credit)
The picturesque Resort Municipality of Whistler welcomes thousands of tourists from around the world each year. (www.whistler.com - image credit)

On a typical weekday evening this summer in Whistler, B.C., tourists hoping to go out for dinner have faced waits of up to two hours at the few restaurants open and offering food.

On some days at the mountain bike park on Whistler Mountain, some of the lifts remain closed. Despite the throngs of tourists, many stores have limited hours.

Businesses in the mountain resort town north of Vancouver say they don't have enough staff to operate at full capacity.

"If you're trying to get dinner on a Tuesday or Wednesday night in town, forget it," said Kathi Jazic, owner of Elements Urban Tapas Lounge in Whistler.

Last week Jazic had so few staff available, she had to shut down dinner service for all but one night. She says she has become adept at closing her restaurant at a moment's notice when staff call in sick and, as is usually the case, can't be replaced.

The situation is much the same at many of the restaurants and shops across the popular Village Stroll, which usually beckons thousands of tourists from around the world as they hit the slopes during the day and roam the pedestrian walkways in the evenings in search of food, shopping and entertainment.

Jazic and other business leaders in Whistler say their community has been hit hard by a confluence of a long-standing housing crisis, an ongoing provincial labour shortage in the service sector and, now, immigration delays in bringing in new workers from abroad because of the pandemic.

According to a 2018 letter from the Whistler Chamber of Commerce to Patty Hajdu, the federal labour minister at the time, 65 per cent of the chamber's business members rely on temporary foreign workers. The vast majority of those workers, 95 per cent, come on a working holiday visa.

Now, with the busy winter season fast approaching and the Canadian border open once more to American tourists, business owners like Jazic are wondering what the future holds.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press
Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

"Most of the [customers] have been really, really wonderful. They're very supportive. They're very understanding," Jazic said.

"But the tourists that are starting to come in now that we've opened up, they're slightly less enthusiastic about the way things are going here."

Jack Crompton, mayor of the Resort Municipality of Whistler, says the region is taking an "all hands on deck" approach to the problem.

The municipality continues to invest in affordable housing, Crompton says, and has been advocating for more access to the holiday working visa program.

"We're seeing around the world a labour shortage in the tourism and hospitality sector. And certainly Whistler is no different," he said.

Crompton says the resort has dealt with staffing shortages in the past, and he has the utmost confidence in local businesses' ability to find a creative solution to the problem.

For Christina Kelly, operations manager at Whistler's Aava Hotel, that has meant trying to find new pockets of potential new workers. Kelly says the hotel had to rebuild its staff from scratch last summer after it closed for three months at the beginning of the pandemic.

Scott Markewitz
Scott Markewitz

Now, the hotel only operates at 80 per cent capacity because it doesn't have enough room attendants to clean after guests leave — current provincial health orders prohibit them from offering daily room cleaning services.

"We're not getting resumes from any direction," Kelly said. "Regular forms of hiring have just not been working."

Most staff have been working six days a week to keep the hotel running, she says — a solution she worries about for the long term as workers begin to feel the toll physically and emotionally.

And although the winter season brings a different pace to the hotel, with longer stays that require less maintenance, Kelly says she doesn't see being able to increase capacity anytime soon.

"Everybody is stretched thin," she said.

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