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People shop at a grocery store in Montreal on Dec. 19, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canadian businesses in a variety of sectors say they are starting to feel the staffing pinch from the highly contagious Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, putting further pressure on employers that were already short of workers.

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Canada hit 35,618 on Tuesday, about 10 times what it was a month earlier. Even though hospitalizations have not risen as dramatically as in previous waves, people who catch the virus are expected to isolate themselves at home to limit spread.

The rising number of cases has led to staffing shortages in many industries, including essential retail. Gary Sands, vice-president of government relations at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said his members reported a 20-per-cent shortage in employee hours over the holiday period, and he expects that number is increasing.

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For stores that were already facing record job vacancies, the surge has made it challenging to stay open and maintain regular operating hours, especially in some communities that may rely on a single grocery store as their only source of food.

“We could face situations where a store has to shut down for operational reasons, and then you have a food security issue,” he said.

Most provinces have recently tried to mitigate the impact of the rise in cases by lowering the isolation time for vaccinated people to five days, down from 10 days.

But getting rapid test kits for COVID-19 is also difficult. In Ontario, businesses access the kits through local chambers of commerce. But Mr. Sands said the chambers are not equipped for the soaring demand, and communities without a chamber of commerce are left without options.

M&M Food Market, which has more than 310 stores across Canada, has seen store managers and franchisees pick up shifts to fill the gaps when employees can’t come to work. The company usually has core hours that stores are required to stay open, which differ by region. But recently, it has been making more exceptions.

“There’s certainly been a ramp-up in people who can’t work because they’re waiting for a test, or they’ve tested positive,” said Allan Lindsay, M&M’s senior vice-president of marketing and operations. “The requests for flex hours have been increasing.”

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The company has been cautious about moving staff between stores to fill in those gaps, however. “We don’t want to create more problems by expanding people’s professional bubble,” Mr. Lindsay said.

Omicron has created something of a perfect storm in energy – a sector that was already struggling to find enough workers.

Mark Scholz, president and chief executive of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (CAOEC), said his members are already experiencing significant worker shortages because of rising case counts.

The group represents Canada’s drilling and well servicing sector. Its 2022 forecast predicted 210 rigs would be active in the first quarter of this year, but Mr. Scholz said that number will now likely be affected by the nationwide explosion of COVID-19 cases.

It helps that Western provinces have halved isolation requirements for fully vaccinated people to five days, he said. But the biggest challenge facing energy contractors will nevertheless be operational interruptions from crews having to isolate in the case of a positive test – especially because the Omicron variant is so highly transmissible.

“If you have one individual that tests positive, it’s not going to be an isolated incident, it’s likely going to impact several of the crew members,” he said.

“This is going to be a very frustrating period within the industry, just trying to manage operations and keep staff healthy.”

Alberta will allow further exceptions for workplaces in sectors in which disruption of service for 24 hours or more would significantly impact public safety, and which can’t stay open unless they bring workers back before their isolation period has ended.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Deena Hinshaw, said that would include health care and water treatment plants, but said there would also be specific rules for additional precautions in those workplaces.

Representatives of other industries said they are concerned about the threat posed by Omicron, but they have not yet noticed an impact on staffing.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture said the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing labour shortages, and seasonal farm businesses are concerned the variant will make it more complicated to increase staff dramatically in the coming weeks as the growing season approaches.

Paul Meinema, national president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada, said front-line workers must be protected by having the ability to stay home if they contract or are exposed to the virus. He called on federal and provincial governments to provide seven permanent paid sick days to all workers, with an additional 14 days during a pandemic.

Victoria Mancinelli, director of public relations at the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said that although the number of cases in the construction industry appear to be low, employers must be vigilant about making sure health and safety guidelines are strictly enforced.

Concern about Omicron has also spread into the public sector. Toronto Mayor John Tory said city staff are preparing for a worst-case scenario in which 50 per cent to 60 per cent of front-line municipal workers are off work. He made the comment as the city announced it is temporarily closing almost half of Toronto’s libraries.

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