Solving labour issues in Sioux Lookout

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

Clockwise from top left: Anne Marie Harriott, general manager, Aron De Haas, Liberty Hospitality, Vikas Bhan, general manager and Roxanne Hammond, program manager, Sioux-Hudson Employment Services.

Clockwise from top left: Anne Marie Harriott, general manager, Aron De Haas, Liberty Hospitality, Vikas Bhan, general manager and Roxanne Hammond, program manager, Sioux-Hudson Employment Services.

SIOUX LOOKOUT, Ont. — It’s a fly-in hunter’s and fisherman’s paradise. It’s got a booming economy, largely because it is the hub that services 29 Northwestern Ontario fly-in First Nations communities. The main economic drivers for this town of 5,500, 78 km north of Dryden, Ont., are the hospital and associated hostel. 

There are more job vacancies than the available labour force, coupled with competition with other sectors, most notably health care, which pay $18 to $22 for unionized positions, depending on experience.

The crisis was more apparent this winter, when Sioux Lookout played host to the Little Bands Hockey tournament, where the resources of hotels and restaurants were stretched to the max as they tried to continue servicing their customers with unfilled positions.

Days Inn Sioux Lookout recognizes the issues and is working to make the industry more attractive, by changing the work environment to be more in line with the available labour forces, creating a supportive, respectful workplace, partnering with Sioux Hudson Employment Services for professional development, and offering competitive wages, above industry standard.

 “The struggle with labour shortage up north is real,” said Stella Gan, whose company, Liberty Hospitality, based in Barrie, Ont., manages the Days Inn. 

“We realize that there is no quick fix to solve this problem. Even some of the initiatives we are implementing are not the fix for this. There is some denial from the government on all levels on this issue. They feel that all these problems can be resolved just by offering more training, more funding for training — all job-related stuff. 

“Some of these workers have bigger issues that they need to deal with — socio-economic, mental health, substance abuse, physical abuse, etc. It is very difficult to focus on the job, career and the like, when they need to deal with other issues.

“Roxanne Hammond, program manager, Sioux-Hudson Employment Services, has been a great resource in helping us and other businesses with labour challenges. We feel that it is important to bring these issues to light, to share with other employers that they are not alone, and hope this brings awareness of the problems,” Gan said.

The high health care wages compare to minimum wages, which would be the going rate at the hotel — Days Inn has raised that rate substantially to be competitive.

“Days Inn bumped up the wages a little more, even higher than what other hospitality businesses are offering.  They have been proactive at overcoming that hurdle,” Hammond said.

Although the population of Sioux Lookout is officially 5,500, in reality it can fluctuate between 8,000 and 10,000, with people flying in and out or driving on ice roads to access health care and other services the town offers. 

Although Sioux Lookout is a small place, it has four hotels — Days Inn, Best Western, The Forest Inn and the Sunset Inn — to service this larger, visiting population.

“It’s a great economy,” said Hammond, who has worked at the employment services company for 13 years. “It’s recession proof. I have never seen the job board have less than 100 positions at one time. There are shortages across all occupations — teachers, mental health professionals, nurses — they are feeling it across the board.  

“In Sioux Lookout, getting the job is not the challenge; the challenge is retaining employees.  In a healthy economy, employees often see hospitality as a stepping stone — it is easy to move if you are a strong employee.”

She added that some people are dealing with significant social issues, including mental health problems, addiction, literacy and education, homelessness, single parenthood, a high cost of living and a lack of transportation in this long, spread-out community.

Added to the mix is the remoteness of the community — Dryden is an hour away and Kenora is a three-hour drive.

“We worked with Roxanne since the day we opened,” said Gan. 

They worked with local colleges that offer hospitality/management training.

They reached out to fill housekeeping positions — but found that not everyone wanted to go to Sioux Lookout. “That’s interesting because Sioux Lookout has long been seen as a destination location for the outdoors, hunting and fishing. It’s got a healthy economy and outdoor lifestyle — people from all over the world love it,” Gan said.

“It’s a beautiful place with clean water, sandy beaches and snowshoeing in the winter.”

Sometime young families are reluctant to relocate because of how small the community is and how far it is from a major centre. Some of the things that appeal to young families — a local pool and well-known franchises — just aren’t there. “Infrastructure-wise, there is work to do,” said Gan. “The municipality is attempting to address this.”

There’s no public transit, and the area has long, very cold winters. 

Most people have two jobs in order to get by, said Hammond, noting that she works at the local campus of Confederation College as well as at Sioux-Hudson.

High cost of living

A high cost of living including increasing housing costs come into play as well — creating barriers to not only entry positions, but management positions as well. 

“The cost of a two-bedroom apartment is $1,200 to $1,500 per month,” said Hammond. “Add utilities, which are a huge barrier for us, especially in a community that has seven months of -20 C to -40 C. Food has to be shipped here, although the local grocer does their best to  keep things competitive.”

A three-bedroom, new build home costs $375,000 to $475,000.

One of the measures Days Inn Sioux Lookout implemented is flexible working hours. “People no longer have to start at 10 or at 9 — they come in when they can. You take what you can get,” said Gan.

People often have to walk to and from their place of employment, and with more lakes than land, Sioux Lookout is not a walking town. 

Hammond gave an example of a single parent whose shift at the hotel was from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. That person would have to walk their child to school. There’s no provision at the school for early morning drop off. That means the earliest they could start is 9:15 a.m. If they are going to pick up their child from school on time, they can’t stay at work until 3 p.m.

“We have to adjust or adapt with the limitations of Sioux Lookout,” said Hammond.

To overcome the public transportation problem, Days Inn offered pick up and drop off after shifts. “That has worked well until last Monday, when we had zero attendance in the housekeeping department,” said Gan. 

“When that happens, the focus of the hotel operations manager is to turn around those rooms. They’re gasping for air; there’s only so many things an operations manager can handle.”

Accommodating cultural norms

Hammond said there is a high proportion of First Nations people in the employment pool. 

“A lot of time, the individual comes from northern communities, and they may not have lived outside the community. There’s a transition people are experiencing — from the cultural norms of their community to the cultural norms in business. 

“For example, when a loved one passes, the whole community shuts down due to cultural practice. Sometimes that’s lost in communication. It’s taken for granted that you don’t need to call your employer. It’s understood because in small First Nations communities, that’s how it works.”

One of the main services Sioux-Hudson Employment Services provides is mainstream employee readiness and life skills. They are trying to equip entry level employees with the skills they need to meet urban expectations.

“I am a registered social worker, and the work I do here is outside of the capacity of a typical employment agency,” said Hammond. “What my team has done here is take a pro-active approach to address social issues, adding to worker effectiveness.”

The company has four full-time employment counsellors, and in addition to traditional employment counselling, they are all certified as life skills coaches by the YWCA. 

They are all trained in motivational interview, strength-based perspectives, positive mental health, literacy and language barriers and addiction. Sioux-Hudson also partners with other community resources.

The centre offers a 60-hour pre-employment program for youth aged 15 to 29. The program focuses on life skills, time management, budgeting, how to access housing, and mental health and addiction services.  

Part of the course deals with how to talk to your employers, how to present yourself in a professional way and how to negotiate.

“We try to bridge that gap. Employers can call us if people didn’t show up. We would call to find out what’s happened,” Hammond said.