'Sunshine Tax' and EI making it tough to find workers in Okanagan | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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'Sunshine Tax' and EI making it tough to find workers in Okanagan

Image Credit: UNSPLASH/Tim Mossholder
June 29, 2021 - 8:00 AM

As the Okanagan recovers from the doldrums of the COVID-19 pandemic the long-standing struggle to attract workers is getting worse.

And it’s not just in the hospitality and restaurant industries that are struggling to find enough workers to re-open or return to full capacity. It’s spread through management, business offices and the trades.

“Just getting people to respond to postings has been a challenge across the board,” Brent Rizzardo, president of Merritt-based Emcon Services Inc. “From servers in kitchens, to chefs, to LPNs, RNs, to superintendents for road crews, mechanics, trade journeymen, mechanic apprentices, you name it.”

Emcon has a long-term care home in Merritt and thousands of employees in B.C., Alberta and Ontario doing road clearing and maintenance.

READ MORE: As B.C. restaurants prepare for July 1, a new problem arises

Rizzardo hasn’t received any applications from Canadians for his chef posting in Merritt and blames government support programs such as Employment Insurance and other Canadian social safety nets for long-standing problems of getting people to work.

“This has happened as long as the EI system has been in place,” he said. “It was always intended as a safety net but not a crutch. CERB and other programs that have been introduced by governments are all making things worse.”

He expected to have no problems recruiting small engine mechanics for his seasonal snow plowing work a few years back when he set up operations in Ontario. His expectation was that people laid off after the summer tourist season would welcome winter work.

“Those guys all leave the country and go on holidays and collect EI, even though they’re supposed to be actively looking for work,” Rizzardo said. “The EI system is broken.”

Stacey Lalonde, human resources manager for Okanagan Staffing Services in Kelowna, sees a different side of that same coin.

Employers, these days, are looking to hire full time people rather than temporary staff to lessen their immediate costs, she said. Temporary staff are paid vacation pay on each cheque and employers have other costs like payroll and HR costs that have to be paid immediately, rather than being deferred.

Workers, on the other hand, are often wanting to only put in the maximum hours allowed under their support programs so those can be extended, Lalonde said.

Despite the fact that thousands of people were laid off due to COVID, they’re not flocking back to the workforce even though there's no cost to the applicants.

“We used to receive numerous applications on a daily basis,” she said. “But now, we may get one, sometimes none in a day. It’s dwindled down to practically nothing. It’s been like that through COVID but now we’re receiving more job orders but not as many applicants.”

That’s similar to the situation in the real estate industry where the shortage of listings has helped push housing prices through the roof.

Where that picture strays from the supply-and-demand reality in real estate is that it hasn’t seemed to have the same impact on wages. Given the historically lower wages in the Okanagan, often referred to as the Sunshine Tax, that’s makes it even harder to find workers.

“I hear time and again from those I speak to over the phone, who are looking for work, that they’re having a really hard time, especially those who are single,” Lalonde said. “They are trying to afford a place on their own and trying to find a job that is going to pay for it. The minimum per hour went up June 1 but it’s still not enough to live on.”

Since it’s an “employees’ market,” some workers are simply asking for too much, but on the other hand, she’s had people looking for jobs in Kelowna from other provinces where they’re already earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year more.

“I have to go back and forth with the clients and, when I’m negotiating contracts, determine if we can find a wage that works both for the client and the employee,” Lalonde said. “Our goal is to find the right hire the first time and the right fit so both the company and the employees are happy.”

It’s a rather gloomy picture that has been a long time in the making and it will take many years, if ever, to resolve.

The Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce recently sent a letter to senior governments calling for action on many fronts, ranging from affordable child care and housing to revamped immigration and training policies.

READ MORE: Okanagan business renews call for government action on labour shortage

“I think we’ve erred as a society,” Rizzardo from Emcon said. “We’ve made the shift to mandate people to go to university. There’s lot of people who go to college after they go to university because they can’t find jobs with the university area of study they’ve chosen.

“That’s not everybody but there’s a large percentage that have a bachelor of something then go on to college and become a technologist in something else. That’s because the colleges have a higher standard of positions being filled for graduates. Graduates in colleges or technical institutions have a 90 to 95 per cent placement rate where, in universities I suspect, it’s down in the 60s or 70s.”

On top of this, the population is aging.

A recent release by the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia said the average age of B.C. residents in 2020 was 42.6 years old, up 4.4 years from 2001. Those over the age of 65 now make up 19.2 per cent of the population.

The report also noted that, in April, the average house sold in B.C. for $943,845, up by more than $210,000 from a year earlier.

“For both the sake of our current and future residents, it will be critical to encourage greater housing development in order for British Columbia to be more affordable and accessible,” the report said. “Income levels have also not risen nearly fast enough to keep pace with housing prices. As we pivot from recovery to growth, there is also an opening to focus on ways to boost our province’s productivity and residents’ income.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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