When Whistler, B.C., went into lockdown in mid-March after a pair of ski-seeking travellers passed through the resort town and later tested positive for COVID-19, Kerri Jones, the owner of a local Australian bakery cafe, lost nearly her whole staff of visa workers.
Since 2015, more than 7,000 Aussies have received visas to work in Canada each year. According to the most recent census data, a plurality settle in British Columbia. Whistler, a mountain resort known for its over-the-top aprés-ski culture, has become reliant on thousands of international workers to keep the village running.
Jones, an Australian expat who initially came to Whistler in 2010 for one season and never left, employed staff from Australia, England, Ireland and Germany before the lockdowns forced the closure of her cafe, Peaked Pies.
“We went from a staff of about 15 down to a staff of three within a week,” Jones said.
As governments around the world began advising citizens abroad to return home in March and April, Jones said the uncertainty around travel restrictions led many of her employees to leave the country.
“What's it going to look like here in Canada or if any of us get sick or the business closes down and we don't have a job or healthcare or anything like that?” she asked.
Erin Roberts, who came to Whistler from Queensland, Australia on a working holiday in 2019, found herself in the latter situation as the lockdowns began.
When Vail Resorts, the parent company of Whistler Blackcomb, closed the mountain to skiers and snowboarders on March 14, Roberts’s job at a village restaurant was quick to go. Four days later, she was on a plane back to Australia.
“We found out on (March 17) that the resort was being closed for good and we pretty much were told to leave,” Roberts said. “We were told by our own country to make our way home.”
At first, Roberts wanted to stay, but as uncertainty around travel restrictions mounted, so did the pressure to head home. “I was speaking to all of my colleagues and friends, and they were like, yeah, we're all going,” she said.
“It was mayhem. We didn't know if we were going to be able to get out of the country and go home. We didn't know whether we were safe in Canada.”
According to a survey released last month by B.C.’s Chamber of Commerce, 63 percent of businesses in Whistler have laid off workers because of COVID-19, and 65 percent have closed temporarily. Province-wide, 48 percent have laid off workers, and 45 percent closed temporarily.
Now, as the village prepares for reopening in June, businesses are scrambling to train and hire new staff members. In the last month, Whistler’s Job Board, a Facebook group of nearly 20,000 members, has seen an uptick in posts from local businesses seeking workers.
At Peaked Pies, the labour shortage is forcing Jones to train new staff as “all-rounders,” rather than hire for specific positions like the cafe did before the pandemic. She said the changes have been tough on her current staff, but that she’s optimistic about the village’s new normal.
Jack Crompton, Whistler’s mayor, said he’s working with businesses toward that new normal as B.C. enters the second phase of its recovery this week.
“Our seasonal workforce is a crucial part of our community—Whistler was built by seasonal workers,” Crompton said in an interview. “There's a lot that needs to go into understanding what physically-distant-but-hospitable experiences look like. But if anyone can deliver that experience, Whistlerites can.”
Crompton, who was elected mayor in 2018, said he’s been steering local businesses toward the new WorkSafe BC guidelines—developed by the province to manage COVID-19 in workplaces—so the village can begin its economic recovery.
The new guidelines include reducing capacity in restaurants and retail stores, retrofitting businesses with plexiglass dividers, and providing accessible hand-washing stations for workers.
“I’m focused on ensuring that both the workforce and visitors are able to access a safe and positive experience in the mountains,” Crompton said.
As for Roberts, she said that changes made in late March by the Government of Canada to allow visa workers to return with a job lined up, despite COVID-19 travel restrictions, gave her hope.
“I have friends over there that are Canadians, who are able to help me get a job,” she said. “I’m thinking about it. But It's just that uncertainty with work, it’s all up in the air at the moment.”
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