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Erin O’Toole’s Dine-In Rebate Proposal Would Do Little to Help Restaurant Workers

Under the proposed scheme, diners would get 50 percent off food and non-alcoholic drinks when dining at a restaurant from Mondays to Wednesdays

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On September 20, Canadians will elect their next prime minister — a decision that will also now determine whether diners are in store for a rebate on restaurant meals, apparently. Conservative candidate Erin O’Toole believes such an initiative will assist the industry in its recovery, but others have their doubts that 50 percent off a burger and fries is going to change much.

O’Toole, who is now tied with the Liberal party in projections for the popular vote, released his proposal for the “Dine and Discover” initiative on Wednesday. A press release, while sparse on details about the implementation, spelled out the initiative’s aim: to “provide a 50 percent rebate for food and non-alcoholic drinks purchased for dine-in from Monday to Wednesday for one month, once it is safe to do so, pumping nearly $1 billion into these sectors.”

Sharing the proposal on Twitter, the Conservative candidate said in a video that the initiative is part of a larger plan to “recover the one million jobs lost in the pandemic.” In another tweet posted a few hours later, he noted that restaurants employ 1.2 million Canadians and contribute $95 billion to the GDP. “It’s time we give these hard-hit workers some help,” he said.

When Rebecca Gordon, a former restaurant worker and spokesperson for the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition, initially came across O’Toole’s tweets, she says she was glad to see an electoral candidate directly broach the topic of restaurant work. After a closer look, though, she concluded, “It’s not actually going to help workers at all.”

“The money wouldn’t go directly to the workers who have been really hard hit and laid off. We’ve been fighting as a workforce for fair wages and safe working environments and job security. It doesn’t seem like it would really address any of that,” Gordon says.

Eater has reached out to O’Toole for further information about the restaurant rebate proposal and how he envisions it directly benefiting workers.

Colin Perry, co-owner of Montreal Southern restaurant Dinette Triple Crown, seems to agree with Gordon, reacting to the news in a Twitter comment that reads, “Too many bad ideas to address in one tweet, but at the top of the list is the that most restaurants are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.”

Save for most fast-food outlets, early-week closures — at least in Montreal — are common, meaning many restaurants would either be left out of the scheme entirely or forced to adjust their operations to partake in it. Opting for the latter would likely mean spreading existing staff even thinner than they already are or temporarily beefing up their team for the month — if they could find the workers to do so.

“If [owners] find out that they can get some more money from people, it’s likely that the workforce will have to step up and work even harder... People would probably have to work on their days off, and we’re currently very short-staffed,” Gordon says

While O’Toole didn’t specify exactly how such a plan would play out at the dinner table, Gordon believes “it could create a whole lot of other problems.” Among them are a potential drop in tips if diners choose to calculate gratuities with the rebate in mind, confusion among diners about how the rebate works, which workers would have to field, and visits from people who do not habitually dine out and are unfamiliar with the necessary coronavirus safety protocols.

One last thing: The rebate would apply to dine-in meals only, excluding the generally less risky options of takeout and delivery. (In Quebec, indoor dining now requires proof of full vaccination, which certainly minimizes the risks when respected but doesn’t obliterate them. Meanwhile, takeout and delivery, which entail comparatively much quicker interactions, do not require a vaccine passport.)

To be fair, O’Toole did specify in the press release that the scheme would only go into effect “once it is safe to do so,” though he failed to provide details on how that moment would be determined.

When the UK launched a very similar scheme called “Eat Out to Help Out” in August last year, it spurred the sale of over 100 million restaurant meals, leading some to deem it a success. However, a study from the University of Warwick later revealed that it significantly accelerated the country’s second wave. Granted, this was in the earlier days of the pandemic; the situation in Canada today varies greatly thanks, on the one hand, to widespread vaccination and the introduction of vaccine passports, and on the other, to the more transmissible delta variant that’s fuelling the country’s fourth wave.

Until the government is prepared to address restaurant workers’ COVID-related concerns head-on, as well as long-term demands for job security, improved working conditions, and fair wages, Gordon says those who’ve exited the industry are unlikely to make a volte-face. A month-long rebate on dining could incentivize spending at certain businesses giving them a temporary boost, “but it’s not going to do much to bring workers back into the industry,” she says. “It really seems more like a coupon than a permanent solution.”

Correction: September 11, 2021, 9:45 a.m. This article was corrected to show that Erin O’Toole said in a video posted to Twitter that his plan would recover one million, not 100 million, jobs.