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Volunteers give their time to short-staffed eateries

Sunshine Coast residents pitch in to keep Sechelt businesses open

On a sunny Monday, there’s a busy lunchtime rush at PKLS Burgers on Cowrie Street in Sechelt. It’s keeping co-owner Tanya Lapsansky in the kitchen, her staff hard at work, and a new face at the window taking orders. 

It’s Joe Sawer’s first day, although he’s actually a volunteer. Sawer is just one of the Coasters Helping Coasters volunteers, a new initiative started in the first week of August in Sechelt. 

As COVID-19 restrictions began being lifted, a group of golfing friends hosted a barbecue where the main topic of conversation was the struggles of local restaurants, particularly being unable to find staff to work. The retirees decided to take matters into their own hands, and offer up their time in whatever way the restaurants needed them, whether hosting, cleaning tables, food preparation or acting as delivery drivers.

Instead of an hourly pay rate (minimum wage in B.C. is $15.20), business owners can make a suggested donation of $10-12 per hour to the food bank or Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s partly because of tourism,” volunteer Lezlie Smith said, citing the negative impacts of long waits for service. “And partly, we want to help with businesses who are really trying hard.” 

“And we want to be able to go to the restaurants, too,” volunteer Sandy Kay added. 

So the nine volunteers approached the Sechelt Downtown Business Association (SDBA) to see if there was an appetite for their help. 

As of Aug. 9, volunteers have put in shifts at Batch 44 and PKLS Burgers, The Bakery has asked for volunteers, and other businesses are interested, Theressa Logan, the executive director of SDBA, said. First, the business owners have to reach out to their insurance providers to ensure they are covered.

According to the Ministry of Labour, B.C.’s Employment Standards Act does not apply to volunteers, and the same is generally true for the Workers Compensation Act. Still, a business should seek legal advice on any liabilities, and whether an arrangement with an individual qualifies as a volunteer or employee under the acts, or if it is in violation of a collective agreement that may dictate a laid off employee must return to work before a volunteer can be used. If a worker was laid off and a volunteer was brought in to do the same duties, that may be found to be contrary to the act, a ministry spokesperson said by email.

SDBA has an online spreadsheet for business owners showing the volunteers’ availability, abilities and contact information. Coasters Helping Coasters has committed time until mid-September, when they will reassess the need.

The staffing issues could be the result of a combination of factors, Logan said.

COVID shut down many businesses at least temporarily, particularly those in the tourism and hospitality sector. Then, some people changed industries for more reliable work. The Sunshine Coast workforce typically includes workers from outside of Canada, but the borders were closed.

The lack of affordable housing on the Coast could be another factor.

Logan said while some staff may have found better paying jobs, there is an “underlying murmur” of COVID recovery benefits from the federal government being a problem. Those funds have been extended until the end of October.

“We don’t know if that’s the correlation,” Logan said about the benefits. “But I know a lot of these restaurants have increased their wages, were offering signing bonuses, and they still couldn’t get people.”

Her own business, Sunshine Coast Air, never closed during the pandemic, yet has struggled to fill a desk job that starts at $25 an hour. 

When asked if the volunteer initiative could unintentionally impact job availability, Logan said, “This isn’t going to make a difference. It’s not long term, these guys are here for maybe a month. They’re just trying to hang in there until the end of summer is over.”

Restaurants seem to have been hit the hardest, Logan said, since they rely on multiple staff members working together. Instead, some have had to resort to take-out only, or closing for multiple days during the week.

“It’s a tough time for businesses who’ve already gone through a tough time and who are now ready to rock and roll – and there’s no one to work,” she said. 
It’s a situation many businesses are facing across the country, although it may be more difficult in smaller locations, Ian Tostenson, the president of the BC Restaurants and Foodservices Association (BCRFA), told Coast Reporter.

Most restaurants will have their own protocols for training, and COVID precautions will still be a focus when bringing in volunteers, Tostenson said. While he hasn’t heard of a similar solution of using volunteers in restaurants to alleviate the staffing shortage, he said, “That’s so cool.”

When asked what having a volunteer means for PKLS, co-owner Tanya Lapsansky said, “It means it saved us.” 

Lapsansky and her partner became the new owners of PKLS on July 30, although Lapsansky worked for the business before. She said they’re quite excited and grateful to have the help of volunteers, since the staffing shortage means they’re working long hours. 

“I wish I could hire him,” Lapsansky said of volunteer Joe Sawer with a chuckle. “It’s too bad that he’s not looking for a job.”

Lapsansky said she’d be happy with two more employees, but some of her current staff are leaving for school in September. Since beginning her hiring search, only one person responded and Lapsansky hired her right away. 

“It’s just been a nightmare, you know? And because we’re busy, we want to be able to maintain and grow,” she added. 

Lapsansky’s not the only one to buy into the local restaurant business during the pandemic. At least five restaurants have opened in downtown Sechelt, and one in Davis Bay.

To Logan, it’s a sign of an upward trajectory for the Sunshine Coast. With wildfires redirecting tourists from the Interior, and the Coast’s proximity to Vancouver, the area is on the map both for tourists and new residents.

Logan said she’d like to thank the volunteers for stepping up to help, and hopes seeing seniors serving will inspire people to apply for jobs or volunteer themselves.

“I think the Coast is unique in that it [has] a really strong sense of community. They want to see our businesses supported, because everybody knows everybody, it’s family, it’s friends, it’s someone you know that has a business that’s struggling,” Logan said. “I think we just have a lot of passionate volunteers who just want to be able to go for a coffee still and not have to see their businesses who they’ve supported for so long have to shut their doors, because it’s pretty tragic.”

More volunteers are welcome to join Coasters Helping Coasters, and can contact Logan through the SDBA to sign up. 

“Most people begin their working life flipping burgers,” Sawer said with a smile. “It appears I’m ending mine flipping them.”

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