'We have to rebuild our workforce': Tofino businesses struggle to stay open amid staffing shortages

The west coast of Vancouver Island, near Tofino, is shown: (iStock)

On a community bulletin board outside of the Tofino Co-op Food Store, Shed restaurant advertised a $500 signing bonus for line-cooks and dishwashers.

Live to Surf, Tofino Kombucha and Wolf in the Fog also had job postings on display.

Meanwhile, the Dockside Smoked Fish Store has closed for two days a week.

“Staffing is the main issue,” said owner and Ahousaht Tyee Ha'wilth Maquinna Lewis George. “It's super busy. We shouldn't be closed, but we're having to close.”

Without enough staff to keep the business running full-time, George said the decision was made for him.

It's a problem nearly every business in Tofino has been grappling with this summer, said Tofino Long Beach Chamber of Commerce President Laura McDonald.

“Businesses are being impacted by labour shortages to a significant extent,” she said. “Many can't be open at full capacity during the busy season, when they rely on making enough to carry them through the rest of the year.”

Tofino's transient population and the town's housing crisis are contributing factors that have carried over from previous years, said Tourism Tofino Chair Samantha Hackett.

COVID-19 compounded those issues by presenting new layers of challenges.

When businesses were forced to close in March 2020 to combat the virus, many people who relied on tourism to support their families had to look for opportunities outside the sector, said Hackett.

“The whole industry, not just in Tofino, has seen that shift of losing some of those long-term workers,” she said.

George said a recent hire quit because she couldn't handle the workload. Another resigned because she didn't feel comfortable engaging with so many tourists daily after being exposed to COVID-19.

“It's been really, really hard,” he said.

Due to travel restrictions, the town has also seen a loss of its international workforce.

“Tofino is in a remote location and we absolutely rely on working holiday visa type employees,” said Hackett. “Obviously, that's pretty much non-existent at this point. It's going to take some time. We have to rebuild our workforce over these next few years.”

Partnering with colleges and universities is one of the ways the town plans to do that, said Hackett.

According to preliminary data from STR, Tofino's hotel occupancy in July was 92.6 per cent, as compared to 75 per cent in 2020 and 94.5 per cent in 2019.

“We've seen very, very busy years before,” said George. “Tofino has always been busy.”

Yet, the combination of high occupancy rates and staffing shortages have made it difficult for businesses to meet tourism demands, said McDonald.

To address the issue of staffing shortages, the chamber said it's working with other resort jurisdictions and the BC Chamber of Commerce.

“The aim is to come up with some short and long-term solutions from a provincial and federal perspective,” McDonald said. “The impact of this issue is being felt everywhere right now. It is not a problem that is unique to the west coast, unfortunately.”

As the summer season wraps up, McDonald said the chamber will begin to have conversations with businesses to identify short-term solutions that can be implemented locally.

While George continues to cope with a staffing shortage and operational changes resulting from COVID-19, he is trying to stay positive.

“I've always been told that if you see a negative, try to turn into a positive,” he said. “That's the way I want to live.”