B.C.’s Best Cities for Work 2017: Is Vancouver a victim of its success?

Global interest in Vancouver (down nine places on this year's list) has made it one of the least affordable cities in the world–and one of the hardest places to attract and retain service workers

Credit: Tanya Goehring

HELP WANTED | Arlene Hall, director of human resources at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, says some workers juggle multiple jobs to pay their bills

Global interest in Vancouver (down nine places on this year’s list) has made it one of the least affordable cities in the world–and one of the hardest places to attract and retain service workers

It’s late September, and inside the lobby of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, a steady stream of travellers are lining up at the check-in desk; next door, the hotel’s ARC restaurant is buzzing with the chatter of diners studying city maps and servers calling out orders to the kitchen. While not as packed as in the sold-out summer months, the 489-room hotel in downtown Vancouver is struggling these days to find workers to meet the demand of its 200,000-plus annual visitors. In a typical example, openings for in-room dining servers and bussers that took two to three weeks to fill just three years ago now sit unfilled for upward of four months.

A variety of factors are at play, including changes in 2014 to the federal Temporary Foreign Workers program, but Vancouver’s high cost of living has become a top concern for hoteliers, retailers and restaurateurs across the region. “We’ve seen a couple of people leave because they’re relocating to places like the Island or the Okanagan where they think it’s going to be less expensive to live,” says the Waterfront’s director of human resources, Arlene Hall, who’s been with the Fairmont chain for 36 years. Hall says that many job candidates that she interviews express resistance to the regularly fluctuating hours—an inevitable part of hotel life. “We find sometimes people are looking to juggle multiple jobs in order to pay their bills.”

The challenge of finding stable hourly workers in the Lower Mainland is echoed by Cameron Laker, CEO of Burnaby staffing agency Mindfield. Laker—whose clients range from Cobs Bread to Mr. Lube—says the region’s cost of living touches all parts of the service sector. “I can’t think of a restaurateur either in the quick-service restaurants like Tim Hortons or casual fine dining ones like Cactus Club and Moxie’s who isn’t struggling to find really solid, back-of-the-house staff,” says Laker. “Who can live in downtown right now making $12 an hour? You can’t afford it. It’s putting pressure on hiring from outside your core region because there’s huge risk in turnover because that employee doesn’t want to travel for 45 minutes to work.”

Typical of the challenge that Laker identifies is Michael Lylyk—a 32-year-old working part-time for $10.85 an hour at the Gap on Robson Street. Lylyk’s on-call shift starts at 5 a.m., but because of his transit-unfriendly neighbourhood of North Burnaby, he has to leave home by 2:30 a.m. to catch a bus in time for work. “I could cab it, but that costs money that I don’t have. So the cheapest thing for me is to do is to sacrifice sleep,” says the Vancouver Film School graduate, who currently unboxes clothes for the Gap but one day hopes to work full-time in television or radio broadcasting.

For Claudia Hernandez, a room attendant at the Burrard Hotel across from St. Paul’s Hospital, the sacrifice is even greater. Hernandez is a 40-year-old single mother of three living in one of the city’s subsidized housing units near Marine Drive and Boundary Road. For Hernandez, access to transit isn’t the issue; it’s having anything left in the bank after payday to keep her family out of poverty. “By the time my new cheque comes, I’m already broke.”

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