You have to find efficiencies with everything but people

This is the final instalment of a series that investigated the wage disparity afflicting the Canadian wine industry.

Chapter one began with an over arching discussion touching on various issues affecting wages.

Chapter two went behind the scenes allowing winery employees to anonymously share personal accounts, which was met with some disdain from winery owners who felt the structure of the industry was unfairly cast.

Chapter three gave winery owners and managers an opportunity to give in depth insight into the financial barriers running a winery.

The final instalment provides proposed solutions for reform from respected industry veteran and consultant, Sandra Oldfield of Elysian Projects.

Wage issues in the wine industry are not a new conversation, and they are complex. Commencing this investigation revealed a widely held belief that unfair pay is rampant - but why?

Upon closer look, the issues plaguing employees and owners were myriad - and the solutions not entirely straight forward.

Canada as a wine producing region is young, and with that comes barriers to entry - a lack of generational knowledge being passed down, cost of land, labour, taxation structures rooted in protectionism and retribution, and a business requiring owners to wear many hats, rendering human resources a last priority.

Sandra Oldfield, wine consultant and esteemed industry veteran, has built a successful career consulting wineries on issues from hiring to accounting. Her discoveries have been eye opening in the close to sixty she has assisted. She shares, "The industry itself is not straightforward like others. Proprietors have this wide range of needs from growing fruit to making wine to selling it to hospitality to administration. A lot of businesses don't have that wide range. It's not an easy industry to staff for. I don't know of many wineries making hand over fist money."

The misconception of "rich owners" paying unfairly is widespread. It's also not uncommon to hear sordid tales of employees battling for overtime pay, a problem particularly commonplace during harvest, when staff are required to work long and strenuous days.

In the spring of 2019, Ontario passed Bill 66, making the fight for fair pay all the more challenging. The bill allows owners to average out overtime hours worked, Pam Frache (Ontario Fight for $15 & Fairness campaign) explained in a Toronto Star article from April of 2019, "The bill gives the green light to employers to demand that workers work more but get paid less. For example, an employee who works 30 hours in weeks one and two and 60 hours in weeks three and four would normally be entitled to 32 hours of overtime pay that month. With the month-long averaging agreements that Bill 66 allows, they would get just four hours of overtime pay."

With the average cellar or vineyard worker earning $16/hour, entitlement to overtime can make up for this meager compensation. The introduction of Bill 66 further complicated this muddied and delicate issue. A recent study conducted by Peter McSherry law firm showed that 2016 saw record complaints in unpaid wages, with many coming from the food and wine sector.

"Workers end up over used, over worked and under utilized for what they were actually hired to do. Overall, certain areas of the business are definitely lower than they should be - hospitality being the main issue. It's one of the lowest paid areas of the industry, along with farm workers", Sandra points out.

Chapter two exposed opinions of various wine industry workers attesting to "burnout". Before the numbers can change, the culture requires a major shift.

Sandra would like to see wineries running their business with more intent. In her travels, she has seen many who don't even run a budget.

"If you're going to be family owned - that's a lifestyle you've chosen. The second you hire an employee, you take on their needs, ability to pay bills and support a family. At that point, wineries need to up their game - coming up with a budget and reconciling how to keep people year round."

Sandra often sees owners flailing. She muses, "I'd love to say the ones who are low paying, just don't know better - I'm sure that's case for many - but there are wineries out there who are under paying and they really should know it. There's just no blanket answer."

Through her consulting company, Elysian Projects, Sandra conducts a salary survey that allows participants to see industry averages - and the range in some of the jobs is alarming. Sandra hopes to see the survey reach a level with enough wineries buying in, allowing workers to go online to see what positions in the wine industry command at any given time. "Over time, as wages increase, you start to see that in the surveys too, so then you pay more. Without actively staying up on what the current wages are - you can say you're paying well, but until you compare yourself you really don't know. I think it's a tool owners of wineries absolutely need. My hope is that some of the averages could be made public."

Sandra feels far too much weight is placed on the position of winemaker, when the focus should be about employing their hospitality and farming teams year round. "Are they paying everyone a living wage? They claim they do, but the numbers tell a different story."

When Elysian collects data, they've noticed some wineries pay lower than minimum wage - an issue they alert owners of. Sandra feels there's no correlation of pay versus the size of winery. She's found small, family owned wineries often pay their key people the highest, versus large wineries who pay very low, and everywhere in between. Size of winery doesn't seem to be relevant.

Post 9/11, hospitality saw a huge drop in tourism. At the time, Sandra was still with Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, BC. The management team agreed layoffs were imminent. Instead, they devised a plan that avoided their terminating any staff, "We approached it by getting rid of the punt on the bottom of our bottles - that was a $40,000 decision. Changing to light weight glass, a slightly cheaper label and not doing embossing - all of that saved us from having to let go of anyone. The 22 years I worked at Tinhorn, we never got rid of workers due to financial issues."

While migrant workers have become the norm in the wine industry, Sandra raises the issue of requiring vineyard management year round. With many wineries hiring teams from Mexico that only stay half the year, this leaves vacant positions, "Is there a way someone can work year round with benefits and vacation? How do you restructure your winery so that it makes sense in the off season? When I was at Tinhorn, we moved all our vineyard workers to year round, salaried employees. They were treated like a regular employee, not like a "farm worker". They all got three weeks vacation and benefits. We were expecting them to up our game in the off season via preventative maintenance and supply ordering. We found that brought our costs down. We didn't have to go back out again in the fall and look for these people again and retrain them."

On average, it takes roughly 4-6 weeks to hire new employees. While Sandra acknowledges the importance of retention, the hiring process should take precedence. Too many wineries hire "warm bodies". Sandra feels workers should be afraid of environments like this - she feels this sets the tone for what will be a poor relationship, " If that's how much effort they're giving to finding a good fit, they're probably not going to give much to the relationship after they hire you. Expect more from your prospective employers when interviewing - you need to bring your set of questions. They may see you as a squeaky wheel and they may not hire you, but the smart ones will appreciate the right questions and set the tone for your work life."

Sandra attributes her success to strategic decisions. She laments, "You have to find efficiencies with everything but people - a piece of wisdom I heard from the founder of Rent the Runway."

Roughly 80% of staff leave in the first year, she shares. "It's a relationship - you have to nurture it, like any other. Wineries have a lot of issues that make it more difficult for them. They are wearing so many hats due to the nature of this business so they're not focused on HR. They're focused on the product. Their passion is about making wine, not managing people."

Sandra's concludes her suggestions by imploring winery teams and owners to remember that success is not a pie: "I've always tried to get people to understand that the wine is not made by the winemaker, it's made by everyone at your winery. If you use "my wine" when I'm talking to the winemaker, I'll correct them and tell them stop calling it their wine. It needs to come from a position of recognition - everyone who plays a role is part of your success."


Recent Posts

See All