A Prince Rupert restaurateur is voicing cautionary concerns to others in the food and beverage industry about staff layoffs during COVID-19 if employees have been hired under the Foreign Worker Program (FWP).
With the COVID-19 fallout and recent restrictions closing in-house dining many restaurants have had to lay off staff due to financial constraints. This action may jeopardize an employer’s future ability to hire more staff under the FWP, Kristi Farrell, owner of Opa Sushi told The Northern View, on April 9.
Farrell said the Foreign Worker Program is an asset to the region and allows the hiring of specially skilled workers for a contracted period when the candidate pool is shallow. The FWP is a popular program offering a remedy in an industry that traditionally has hiring challenges in the North Coast. Employer applicants are vetted under a strict process, including a review of staff turnover.
“The challenge that’s hitting us right now is if you lay off anybody that impacts your employer record. So in the future, if you put another application in, and you have a layoff on your history in your file, it could impact your application.”
This is placing many business owners in a loophole Farrell said, or with so many other stressors throughout the pandemic its an issue many may not have thought of yet. The issue being the FWP is not allowing some employers with room to make a choice to lay off or not.
“It’s the flexibility piece, but the government hasn’t caught up with the restrictions. So, it’s a risk to lay off people who are on contract with you at this point.”
“Because we don’t know what the future impact might be if we lay off people, this [employer restriction] kind of ties our hands to adjust our resources,” Farrell said.
Farrell said she has a lot of success with FWP and also has had positive results with the government’s COVID-19 initiatives for business relief, but some of the penalizing issues are not realized until the whole process has been completed.
“The only thing I’m really stressing is with all of the changes with COVID here’s an instance where we do need the federal government to show some flexibility because [a business owner] can’t make changes unless they know for sure they’re not going to be penalized for it,” Farrell said.
“Because our incomes are so unpredictable at this point, we need some stability or ability to manage our human resources effectively,” she said.
Taylor Bachrach, M.P. for the Skeena-Bulkley Valley, told The Northern View he hears what Farrell is saying and recognizes her concerns that the foreign worker program as it’s currently structured places some restrictions on employers when it comes to layoffs.
“Ultimately, we need the federal government to show leadership and ensure that the FWP is responding to the unique conditions of the pandemic. I think that’s the bottom line,” Bachrach said.
“I believe the high-level objectives and values need to protect the rights of workers, take care of people who have been negatively affected by the pandemic, and also be fair to local employers. That is the balance that is really important.”
He said the pandemic has put a lot of employers in an exceptionally difficult situation where they simply don’t have the revenue to keep all of their staff on the payroll, even with the support programs that have been offered.
“I feel a lot of empathy for employers who are in that situation because I know they care deeply about their employees. The last thing they want to do is lay people off when they’re faced with those tough decisions. I think there needs to be some provisions made to ensure that those tough decisions are equitable for all employees.”
Bachrach said he hears from a lot of employers throughout the whole region particularly those in the hospitality and food and beverage sector that the foreign worker program fills in important gaps and assists with difficulties hiring from the local labour market. He said he will be reaching out to the department that runs the FWP as well as his colleague and critic of Citizenship and Immigration to gain more clarity and to see how they are dealing with issues such as this.