If you walk into the Pet Grocer store in Alliston, Ont., on any given day, the odds are high that you’ll find owner Jennifer Newark behind the till.
If she’s not there, she’s likely sitting behind her desk running the specialty pet food store’s website or taking care of other administrative jobs.
Even at home, Newark says she’s answering text messages from customers from 7 am in the morning to midnight, as the Pet Grocer is a go-to source of information — and comfort — for owners worried about their furry friends’ diets.
“I have a hard time saying no to anyone who has a sick animal, and I can help them,” she tells Global News.
Newark says she takes time off work an hour here or an hour there, though that’s scarce at home, too. Her 12-year-old son has been homeschooled with a few others in the community for the past seven years — another pressure on the schedule that makes it hard to carve out time for the small business owner and her family.
It’s also a burden that she says she refuses to pass on to the seven employees the store does have, though she admits it can cause frustration among friends and family when she refuses to leave the store.
“I don’t take days off. I just take little pieces of time during each day to try and fit in my personal life, basically,” she says. “My husband would like me to make that a little bit more of a priority and we’re working on that.”
Newark isn’t alone.
Canada’s tight labor market has had the country’s employers scrunging for talent for well over a year.
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The Bank of Canada’s recent Business Outlook Survey shows there have been signs of improvement in recent months as strong immigration levels pump up the labor pool, even as the county’s tight unemployment rate continues to float just above record lows.
Some 30 per cent of businesses responding to the central bank’s survey reported experiencing ongoing labor shortages in the first quarter of this year, down from 46 per cent at its peak in the third quarter of 2022.
But for those small businesses who can’t find the right staff to fill shifts, it’s often owners like Newark who end up taking on the work, a new report shows.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said in a report on Monday that the extra hours worked by owners amounts to an eighth day of the workweek for many.
The report said that among businesses who said they were facing labor shortages, 73 per cent said that owners themselves took on more hours to make up for the gap. In these instances, small business owners worked an average of 59 hours per week, according to CFIB.
“That’s a lot of hours,” says CFIB economist Laure-Anna Bomal, the report’s author.
“This is a lot of time, of course, that business owners can spend on other priorities… such as growing their business or looking into government programs and developing strategies.”
Owners taking extra hours as a result of labor shortages were the highest in sectors such as hospitality (84 per cent), agriculture (82 per cent) and retail (78 per cent), per the report.
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Aside from owners themselves working more, 54 per cent of businesses said that employees take on extra shifts to make up for a labor shortage.
While general business labor shortages are showing signs of easing, those in need of specialized talent are continuing to come up empty handed in many cases.
In CFIB’s March Business Barometer, which polls business owners on a range of regular concerns, some 50 per cent said their business operations were being hampered by a lack of skilled talent, up from the historic average of 35 per cent.
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Newark tells Global News that hiring staff with the specialized knowledge of animal diets that her business needs is a “challenge on a good day,” but lately, it’s been even harder.
“Last time we did a job ad, we had very few applicants, and of those applicants, none of them met the criteria of what we had just listed,” he said.
Automation is hit and miss in some industries
Among responses to CFIB’s report on labor shortages, only six per cent said they were automating processes to make up for the shortfalls.
In Newark’s case, she says that much of the administrative work that takes up most of her time does not have a quick solution through automation.
“I would like to think that one day we’re going to get there. … But right now, I don’t see any solution for that at this time,” she said.
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In previous surveys, Bomal said that business owners have told CFIB that automation was one of the “most useful” ways they navigated labor shortfalls, but he acknowledged it’s not a solution open to every owner.
“Small businesses cannot use automation as quickly and as easily as others. It really depends on your business model and the sector you’re in,” she says.
CFIB suggested in its report that the government could help owners navigate the impact of labor shortages by reducing administrative burdens on small businesses and boosting the pool of available talent in the country.
There’s an economic risk for Canada if its businesses can’t find workers, according to the CFIB report.
Nearly half (48 per cent) said they were turning down sales or contracts without enough staff to handle the work, and 47 per cent said they were reducing their service offerings.
For Newark, the idea of doing less with fewer workers doesn’t jive with her mindset as a small business owner.
“I think a lot of entrepreneurs who are driven the way I’m driven would tell you they’re working the same hours,” she says.
For Canadians who see small business owners struggling to maintain their service levels without a reliable pipeline of talent, Newark urges them to continue putting their money into mom-and-pop shops to make sure those offerings are still there when you — or your furry friend — need them.
“When you shop at a small business … it really means the world to us,” she says.
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola