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A server brings an order to patrons on a steakhouse's outdoor patio in Ottawa on the first day of Ontario's first phase of re-opening amidst the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, on Friday, June 11, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

After months of pandemic lockdowns that left customer service workers with little or no work, many Ontario businesses are now navigating the realities of surging demand and staff shortages – often while trying to accommodate impatient and unruly clientele.

The province moved to Step 3 of its reopening plan last month, increasing indoor and outdoor capacity limits for businesses. Businesses that had been closed or restricted to limited services since April – some personal care services in COVID-19 hot spots such as Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region had been shut down since November – are now dealing with a flood of customers.

Emma Bennett is the co-owner of the Cabinet Salon in Toronto, which reopened early last month and has been inundated with appointment requests. Ms. Bennett herself is booked up until mid-September.

“It’s almost like you don’t even have enough capacity to fill the demand, but everyone’s just doing their best to kind of fit their clientele in,” she said.

Understaffing is an issue for some businesses, though, as many workers who left the service sector or were laid off during the pandemic have found jobs elsewhere.

Payroll employment fell in most service industries in May, particularly in retail trade, accommodation and food services, which, as Statistics Canada notes, were hit hard by pandemic safety measures. The job vacancy rate, which measures vacant positions as a proportion of all positions, was highest in the accommodation and food services industries that month: 7.8 per cent, compared with the national rate of 4.2 per cent.

Bruce Miller, a restaurant brand leader with MTY Food Group, said that while some former workers have said they’d like to return to the sector, they can’t afford the financial risk of another lockdown. He added that some restaurants simply can’t afford to hire former employees back and called on the government to extend the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy until 2022 so businesses can return to normal staffing levels.

Understaffing has also added to the burden of those still working in the sector, said Tim Deelstra, the spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, Locals 175 and 633.

“There have been instances where they’ve been asked to do more than they have in the past because they don’t have any colleagues that they can rely on to spread out that work,” Mr. Deelstra said. “It’s one of the challenges that we’re aware of and that we as a union are looking to find solutions to attract people back into the space.”

Until June 11, the Hamilton diner Tania Robinson works at had only been open for takeout. The first weekend of the reopening, when outdoor dining was allowed, was the busiest of the year, she said. The diner was almost completely full, and she had to come in early because it was understaffed. She ended up working a 10-hour shift that day.

Dealing with a high volume of a customers was stressful after months of being out of practice, Ms. Robinson said. And while people are usually polite, she said, they eventually “kind of got back into their old ways.”

She’s had to deal with customers who show up without a reservation and get upset with her when they have to wait for a table, as well as people who get frustrated when the food doesn’t come out soon enough.

“People in that initial weekend were very kind and compassionate and considerate, but things are still difficult – it’s just that people don’t feel like they need to be kind any more,” she said.

Sometimes, customers try to enter the diner without a mask on. Ms. Robinson said a few people have tried to persuade her that they didn’t need to wear a mask because they were fully vaccinated.

Mr. Deelstra has heard similar stories. Workers have told the union that the public’s “fatigue” with the pandemic has led to some customers refusing to follow mask mandates – with an accompanying increase in bad behaviour directed at workers.

“People are trying to do good work for people serving the public, and we would certainly want people to be a little more respectful when they go in,” he said. “As the economy begins to reopen, it’s our ask of people to treat workers with dignity and respect.”

When the thrift store Arshina Remtulla works at in Durham reopened in June, at a smaller capacity, there was a long lineup to get in. One customer called to ask how long the wait would be, and after Ms. Remtulla told them it could be more than an hour, the customer berated her and hung up.

“People just get frustrated that things aren’t completely back to normal,” Ms. Remtulla said. “I just think that some people forget that we’re still living in a pandemic and we have to continue to be safe.”

Some customers have gotten upset with her because the store’s change rooms weren’t open.

“I understand where their frustration comes from,” she said. “Sometimes I just wish I could tell them it’s out of my control and I don’t have as much power as they think I might have.”

Still, she was grateful to be working again. And she said many customers have been very understanding – some have overheard others being rude to her and have come up to her to apologize.

“It’s nice to hear that because it makes us workers feel seen,” she said.

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