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Staffing a dishwasher position at a restaurant is tricky. It’s hard work that isn’t well paid, and there are lots of jobs available, so workers have options if they’re not happy. But it’s also a key role in a restaurant and has to be filled by someone, so cooks often get pulled off the line to wash dishes, affecting the quality and preparation time of the food.

Restaurateur Grant van Gameren, the co-owner of Toronto’s Bar Raval, Bar Isabel and several others, says dishwasher no-shows are a problem that keeps getting worse. “It’s not really a position where people are reaching their life goals.”

To solve the absenteeism, he turned to Staffy, a temporary staffing app that promises to fill most hospitality roles in “seconds or minutes.” It’s one of several available that connect temporary workers with short-term jobs, a trend that’s particularly prevalent in the hospitality industry, where employers have a hard time attracting and maintaining staff.

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But while frustrated restaurant owners see value in the service, workers’ advocates say the apps could further entrench the temporary nature of the work.

Mr. van Gameren won’t use Staffy for cooks, who need special training on his menus, but he says it’s perfect for dishwashing jobs. At some restaurants, it’s the only way he staffs the position. “We pay a little more, but we don’t have to worry about people not showing up.”

Canadians have several options in the workers-on-demand sphere, including Ask for Task and Adam Helps, which connect people with contractors and people to do odd jobs; Fetchit, which locates trucks and moving help; and Hyre and Pineapple, which provide staff for special events.

Staffy, which launched in 2015, started as an on-demand dishwashing service to help restaurants deal with last-minute no-shows. It now boasts 5,000 workers and 1,000 business clients – about 100 of whom use the service each month. Available in Toronto, Vancouver and New York, it handles payroll and even vets workers using a digital tool that checks their references.

Founder and chief executive Peter Faist says most workers use the service for about one shift a week, but they are allowed to use it as much as they want. Workers create a profile and decide how much money they are willing to work for, their travel range and how many hours of notice they need for a shift. Most workers are paid between $17 and $20 an hour, with an additional 25 per cent or so charged to the business – notably cheaper than most traditional employment agencies.

Hyre, which focuses specifically on event and hotel staff in Toronto and Ottawa, launched its digital product in 2017. The service has about 4,000 staff and 50 clients registered.

At both Staffy and Hyre, workers are treated as independent contractors. As such, they must manage the payment of their own income taxes and are not automatically paying into the Canada Pension Plan or employment-insurance benefits.

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Deena Ladd, co-ordinator of Toronto’s Workers’ Action Centre, says that leaves workers without a safety net. Ms. Ladd’s organization is part of the 15 and Fairness campaign to raise Ontario’s minimum wage. She says working through a temporary employment agency can leave people in a grey area between the agency and the client, making it easier for the worker’s rights to be disregarded.

“When things go wrong – a dispute about wages or overtime pay – then workers [have] a real problem,” she said, noting that temporary staffing agencies have high rates of workplace injury and that the restaurant business has one of the highest rates of labour-law violations in Ontario. “People say, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t use the app,’ but if employers say that’s how they’re going to hire, you don’t have a choice.”

Wayne Lewchuk, a professor in McMaster University’s economics and labour studies departments, says the growing use of temporary staffing apps is a complicated issue. On one hand, they could be the right fit for workers looking to pick up the occasional extra shift or to work without commitments, as well as for employers facing sudden gaps. However, the societal implications are serious: “You end up with a lot of workers who would rather have something permanent.”

Dr. Lewchuk recently did a survey of young Hamilton workers and found just that. Those working in precarious situations would prefer something stable and long-term. “I’d be fine if [these apps were] a complement to a normally functioning labour market, but [they’re] a substitute.”

He acknowledges the challenges the restaurant sector faces in retaining staff. “The skills are portable, the pay is not great, the hours are not great. Let’s not be naive to think people want to hold on to these jobs – of course they don’t. If all the employers are paying the same low wage, [the worker shortage] is built into the structure of the labour market.

“The solution is pretty straightforward: Pay your dishwashers more,” he said.

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He recalled spending a year in Australia, where the minimum hourly wage is $17.70 Australian (about $17.25 Canadian) and non-permanent workers get paid more than permanent staff doing the same job.

“The problem is, that raises costs. It comes down to us as consumers saying, ‘Are you willing to pay a bit more so that dishwasher can have a living wage and some security?’”

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