By Allison Hanes

Two weeks into the peak Atlantic lobster season, a short-staffed seafood processing plant on the eastern tip of Prince Edward Island is hoping to find out as early as today whether the Russian workers it was counting on to keep its operation running full throttle will be allowed into Canada again this year.

For the second season in a row, Ocean Choice International has to resort to recruiting foreign workers to man the lines of its facility in Souris, P.E.I., at its busiest time of the year, because it cannot find enough local people to do the job. But this year the company found out three weeks before the labourers were scheduled to start – and two weeks before they were scheduled to arrive – that it would take much longer than anticipated for the Canadian Embassy in Moscow to process the recruits because of recent changes to the foreign worker program that came into effect on April 1.

All the plane reservations were made, all the fares were paid, all the housing is arranged – all that is in limbo,” said Jack MacAndrew, a spokesman for Ocean Choice. “It was the time sensitive nature of when they lowered the boom. If all of this had happened last October, there would have been time to sort it out.”

Illustrating a conundrum playing out in many parts of Atlantic Canada with increasing frequency, the Ocean Choice plant is 80 workers short and running at about 20% below capacity while the 400 local employees, who work 10 months a year, toil marathon shifts at a pace that cannot be sustained.

A region once plagued  – and still affected – by chronically high unemployment is now, in an ironic twist, facing labour shortages thanks to an aging population, a low birth rate, the lure of Alberta’s high-paying contract jobs and unemployment insurance programs that act as a disincentive to taking work.

The fact that Ocean Choice needs to resort to guest workers at all is a symptom of a greater problem that has been looming in Atlantic Canada for years, said Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a think-tank based in Halifax.

But it is not alone, for New Brunswick trucking firms bringing in drivers from Mexico and Eastern Europe, to retail jobs going unfilled and vacancies  in the seasonal tourism industry that has sustained the Atlantic Economy in recent years, Mr. Cirtwill said the Maritimes is in the midst of a labour crunch.

“We’ve got a low birth rate here,” he said. “We’ve got immigration policies that are not conducive to either short or long-term easy access to new immigrants. We’ve got a structure between EI and welfare that makes it difficult for people to move to accept these kinds of jobs, because of course it doesn’t pay to do so. They actually lose money if they take employment. You’re seeing all these factors pile up and that’s why you see this plant in PEI have such a problem getting people to work the shop floor.”

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies predicted a deficit of 80,000 workers a decade ago – which seemed unimaginable at the time – but the root causes have only been exacerbated, Mr. Cirtwill said. He now predicts the Maritimes will be crying out for 100,000 workers by 2020.

PEI, population 138,000, has an unemployment rate of 10.1% – well above the national average of 6.1% according to the latest figures from Statistic Canada’s Labour Force Survey.

Ocean Choice brought over 30 workers from Russia last year under a program that allowed them to stay for a maximum of 10 months.

Mr. MacAndrew said the company faces many hurdles recruiting locally for the jobs, which pay $9.45 per hour.

“The immigrant workers become the safety valve,” he said.

When Ocean Choice’s recruiter showed up at the embassy in Moscow in April with paperwork for 65 Russians ready to spend their summer in P.E.I., they were told only 10 applications could be handled at once and that the approval process would take a minimum of three weeks. Meanwhile 15 recruits from India were rejected outright by immigration officials who were not satisfied they would return to their home country once their permits expired.

Karen Shadd-Evelyn, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the processing times are clearly posted on the Web site of the embassy in Moscow.

She said the applications for Ocean Choice’s contingent of Russian workers have now been handled and notification of the decision will get underway immediately.

Meanwhile, Ocean Choice is planning to set up a bus service from Charlottetown, an hour and a half’s drive away, in hopes of drawing local workers who don’t want to pay for gas.

“Spring is a big season. If you’re short-staffed, it means you work the people you have 10,12,14 hours a day,” said Mr. MacAndrew. “There was one person who worked 100 hours last week. We cannot keep working people like that.”

Overwork and exhaustion among the regular P.E.I. workforce is also driving down productivity, which Mr. MacAndrew said could jeopardize Ocean Choice’s long-term future in the community of 1,200.

“When productivity gets down to a certain point, we’re going to require less and less labour, maybe none at all,” he said. If it becomes not profitable for Ocean Choice to operate here then we will not operate here.