Post COVID: Profound Workforce Changes Expected

More than One Million Jobs at Stake

We’re into week seven and we still don’t understand the full extent of the pandemic. Tourism has been hit hard, with severe implications on the critical summer tourist season. Not all economic sectors will recover at the same rate or the same time. Tourism, which was impacted early (described as a “canary in the coal mine” by Charlotte Bell, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada), will be one of the last economic sectors to recover. It will require a gradual and measured response than spans months, if not years. More than one million tourism jobs have been affected, and numerous tourism businesses are not expected to survive.

Unlike many economic sectors, tourism is human capital intensive. Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, notes: “A crisis that hits the service side of the economy is one that hits labour the most.” Mandated shutdowns led to hundreds of thousands of laid-off or furloughed workers in the sector. Current data makes it difficult to tell what jobs will be available in six months or a year.

In March, Tourism HR Canada estimated that close to 780,000 jobs were affected by COVID-19 (approximately 43% of the tourism workforce, based on a metric of 70% revenue loss), and that no jobs would be available for the 230,000 students or casual labourers usually hired for the summer season. The following week, Destination Canada reported that 1.66 million tourism employees could be laid off, which accounts for 83% of the workers in the sector. Simply put, the impact was acute, immediate…and could get much worse. (We will have a better understanding on the impact of COVID-19 on jobs when Statistics Canada releases new figures on May 8.)

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC, March 15, 2020), up to 50 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector are at risk due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

There is increasing pressure and urgency to get the economy moving again. In recent weeks, several countries and now a few provinces in Canada have announced plans to start lifting some emergency measures. The anticipation of re-engaging the workforce has heightened the awareness and need for new protocols or guidelines on how to handle physical distancing and other safety measures to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. These measures go hand-in-hand with health officials stressing the need for increased testing to monitor the containment of the virus and warnings that we could quickly revert to earlier, more stringent measures if there is a resurgence of the virus.

Assumptions and Factors Contributing to Workforce Changes

Physical distancing will continue to be enforced for some time, perhaps for as many as 18-24 months. Various articles suggest that physical distancing measures will persist until a vaccine is readily available. Consumer/public behaviours and expectations have already changed to ensure safety is preserved, in response to public health advice or sanctioned restrictions. Subsequently, the tourism sector can anticipate changes in business models and service options.

Large gatherings and high-volume travel remain banned, given concerns for sustained or increased outbreaks of the virus. The lifting of restrictions will be gradual as economic recovery is realized. Re-opening of businesses will be staggered and spotty across the country and varied by tourism industry. Many tourism businesses will remain closed and forego the 2020 season, as it will be too late in the year to generate sufficient business. Seasonal tourism businesses and those operating in rural or remote locations will be most affected, as sustained efforts will limit travellers from entering these communities.

Domestic markets are expected to recover first, with a demand for different tourism products and services than those sought by international markets. Operators will adjust their offering to align with Canadian travel interests. Travellers are expected to be thrifty because of the downturn in the economy, austerity measures, and tighter budgets. For example, quick-service restaurants, take-out, and convenience foods will gain a larger share of the market. More road travel (and less air travel) is expected, along with shorter stays or holiday periods.

What This Could Mean in Terms of Jobs, Service Protocols

Increased workforce precarity, uncertainty; decreased ability to attract and retain workers

The slow recovery will mean fewer full-time/full-year jobs and more demand for casual or part-time labour. Workers may be reluctant to return to work until they can earn sufficient wages and benefits; the incentive to return to work is diminished if unemployment benefits are greater.

Timing on recovery is unknown, and with this comes uncertainty and prudence. Employers will rehire workers or bring back furloughed staff back gradually, and many workers will not keep their jobs. Even with attractive wage subsidy programs, employers are reluctant to bring back employees until they have confidence in recovery, i.e., when they start to earn revenue.

Studies from previous pandemic or catastrophic events, such as hurricanes, or from global economic depressions identify a common theme: during the early recovery period, the industry can expect reduced staff loyalty and a significant increase in the turnover of workers. Although this may seem paradoxical, the fact is workers seek new opportunities as the economy recovers. Generally, there are more jobs available and job seekers have greater choices. Some are seeking better-paid or more stable employment, others need increased flexibility to accommodate different lifestyle requirements (e.g., childcare, elder care, education). In aging populations like Canada, many decide not to re-enter the workforce and instead retire.

Many who earn their livelihoods in tourism will be afraid or reluctant to return to work unless strict safety measures are in place for themselves and guests. Many tourism jobs are inherently risky given the inability to practice physical distancing; subsequently, workers will seek alternative employment with fewer customer-facing demands.

Workers will require new and different skills, aligned with new business models and different product or service offerings. Hands-on, interactive experiences will be diminished. The industry is expected to be subject to increased regulations related to enhanced sanitation and cleaning, compliance with new health protocols, crowd control measures, managing quarantine situations, and more.

HR practices and policies will be overhauled. For example, self-isolation or quarantine requirements will mean that sick-leave policies will change, as will requirements for staff to report illness, and for employers to follow protocols to protect other staff and customers. Imagine for a moment the possibility of a group of visitors being exposed to a worker discovered to have the COVID-19 virus; what are the obligations and protocols to alert these visitors or health authorities?

Use of strict measures, new protocols, changing business practices

Once restrictions are gradually lifted, strict health and safety protocols will be expected of workers and these will vary by the type of operation and service offer. (Protocols unrelated to staff matters will also be required and may involve capital investments.) In Canada, each provincial and territorial health authority will set the guidelines, and the protocols may vary regionally. To follow are examples of the protocols identified in recent articles or guidelines specific to workers or business practices:

  • Workplaces introduce “Immunity Passports”, or a way in which staff are tested and obtain an official ‘good health’ standing before they can return to work. Employees’ temperature will be taken daily as they enter work.
  • Businesses will implement stringent hygienic and cleanliness standards to meet new health and safety requirements, along with increased frequency and thoroughness of cleaning, and inspection and verification of the cleaning regime.
  • Workers will routinely use masks and gloves.
  • Customers will be offered free masks. Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizing stations will be readily available public spaces.
  • Customers need to have temperature taken upon arrival.
  • Customer capacity will be limited to allow for physical distancing requirements, e.g., dining rooms with staggered seating times and limited customers and size of groups; bus tours and flights with 30-50% capacity; a maximum number of gamers at casino tables.
  • No cash transactions will be permissible; purchases will strictly be electronic and online.
  • Foodservice industry will reduce dining room services and increase emphasis on convenience foods, take-out, delivery, and room service.
  • Meetings and business events will be limited to small groups, with constraints on the use of the physical space.
  • Screens, voice activation (touchless activation), and other forms of technology will limit close-contact interactions.
  • Larger companies may introduce Chief Safety Officers or persons responsible for managing staff and public health and security.

These possible new measures illustrate the need for tourism operators to rethink and redesign their business models and overhaul HR practices. The marketing and promotion of services will feature the public safety and security standards of practice, to provide assurances or establish confidence. Brand messaging will promote safety and security and demonstrate a ‘clean bill of health’.

Retaining a Productive and Resilient Tourism Workforce

In these unprecedented times, what should and can be done to help retain a productive and resilient tourism workforce? Tourism HR Canada has identified eight strategic initiatives that will help the industry rebound more effectively and remain competitive.

  1. Skills Upgrading and Cross-Training: Training on how to prevent, mitigate, and recover from COVID-19 is an absolute and immediate concern. This involves new skills for frontline, mid-level/supervisory, and executive functions—everything from elevated sanitation to creating new business models and designing new products and services. Investments are needed in new program development and alternative delivery modes. The industry will also benefit from a comprehensive inventory of qualified programs and a trusted referral system to avoid duplication and increase overall quality and capacity.
  2. Community Labour Force Development Plans and Related Strategies to Engage Community Stakeholders: An all-of-community approach with an emphasis on public-private partnerships and greater community collaboration will benefit a range of stakeholders.
  3. Awareness/Image Campaign: This would help increase the visibility of job opportunities and promote safe and healthy work environments. The campaign would promote tourism as a ‘destination for employment’ and be highly visible in preeminent tourism marketing campaigns to help change the image of the sector for both the consumer (e.g., promote recovery confidence and service standards, and the revival of economy for communities) and job-seeker (e.g., promote job attainment/career opportunities).
  4. Business and Human Capital Plans: Businesses must design new models and stage recovery and continuity strategies.
  5. Human Capital/Human Resource Plans: Operators/businesses need to adjust their HR practices to accommodate situations where staff and business practices are impacted by COVID-19.
  6. Strategies Dedicated to Specific Target Populations and Special Circumstances: It’s vital to address vulnerable and essential tourism workers, such as Indigenous peoples, international students, temporary foreign workers, and casual or freelance workers.
  7. Continued, Comprehensive Labour Market Research and Analysis
  8. Effective National Facilitation, Coordination, Governance: This includes leveraging the role and mandate of Tourism HR Canada to ensure that strategies and resources are optimized.

This article contains excerpts from Tourism HR Canada’s Retention, Recovery, Resilience: Managing Talent During and Post COVID-19 Employer Playbook, to be released in May. Subscribe to Tourism HR Insider to be notified of its publication. Also check out for additional information and tools to help employers cope with staffing and workforce issues related to COVID-19.

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