Covid-19 on the loose, staffing shortages, newly-opened borders, supply-chain issues – there’s plenty for our hospitality industry to contend with. Charlotte Muru-Lanning talks to owner operators and workers from eateries across the country about what life is like at the moment.
“It’s a lot busier at the moment, compared to the last two years,” says Christchurch front-of-house restaurant manager and advocate for Raise the Bar Hospo Union Ellsie. But, staff, she says, are “really burnt out”.
On the upside, since the start of the pandemic, Ellsie says she’s observed a “nice culture shift” in terms of how workers are treated by guests. “Customers are more patient with shortages and wait times,” she says, and they don’t expect their “coffee in just two minutes”.
And while she’s “somewhat grateful” for no longer having to police mask mandates for customers, “it has meant people have become lax”. Serving maskless customers at the till who have just hopped off a plane from overseas can be anxiety-inducing. “In my head I’m like, you could have at least given it 24 hours,” she says.
As well as her main restaurant job, Ellsie works as a temp at two other hospitality businesses and can sense by how in demand she is that “staffing levels are down”.
She explains that understaffing has long been a problem in restaurants, cafes and bars, but with compounding factors like people leaving the industry because of the risk of Covid-19, or staff taking time off due to being sick with the flu or Covid, “we just don’t have the staffing to cope”.
Echoing that, Alex Davies, who owns Christchurch restaurant Gatherings, says there’s a “constant readjustment of staff” as workers and their households catch Covid-19.
The government’s Covid-19 leave support scheme, where employers receive a subsidy to pass on to staff who have to isolate, is helpful, he says, especially in an industry where working from home is for the most part impossible. Gatherings’ chef was off work for two weeks in isolation, and “instead of using up all his sick days, he was able to use the subsidy”, Davies says. “It eases the pressure on staff.”
At the moment, as with staff rosters, bookings are ever-changing as customers test positive for the virus and cancel. Despite the challenges, Davies’ restaurant “is buzzing with people just happy to be out” and the team is doing what they can to adapt. “It’s just the world we live in now, isn’t it? The world is weird.”
Paul Lee opened his first Auckland restaurant, Ockhee, with his wife Lisa a week before the first nationwide lockdown in 2020. Last week the pair opened their second spot, a cafe selling Korean street sandwiches in Auckland’s city centre called Swings.
“Because I went through so much, it really toughened me up and I’m not really scared to spend 20K on a fitting, because I know that I can make it work,” Lee says. His latest opening is an expression that he’s hopeful about the future, not just for the industry, but about the pandemic-afflicted Auckland CBD. “I kinda enjoy the challenge – it’s not so much fun if it’s too easy,” he says.
The biggest challenges for their eateries at the moment are threefold: cancelled bookings, and a lack of both supplies and specialty workers. “For a restaurant like Ockhee, where it’s really authentic Korean food, it’s just Koreans who can actually really make it,” Lee explains. “There’s no one to replace us.” Their chefs have been working long hours, six days a week, for the last few years. “Their bodies are run down,” he says.
Auckland kitchen hand Shastry works casual contracts at four different hospitality businesses. Because he’s on minimum wage, he usually works all seven days of the week. Most of his wages go toward paying for rent and bills for his “shoe-box-sized apartment”.
At the moment, staffing is so low that “I work alone on a shift where you’d normally have two or three kitchen hands,” he says. Enticing workers into hospitality is difficult across the board, but he reckons that’s exacerbated in his line of work because “no one wants to be a dishwasher” – a job that’s both heavy and dirty.
In March this year, Shastry caught Covid-19. His employer applied for the wage subsidy, but it took more than two weeks to find its way to his bank account, meaning he went 10 days without any pay. Because he lives paycheque to paycheque, he had to borrow money from friends to get by. Now, he’s nervous about taking a test if he has symptoms. “I can’t afford to do that again,” he says.
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Like Shastry, Ellsie also has concerns about the prospect of repeatedly catching Covid-19 and having to take time off while sick. “I’m in contact with probably a few thousand people each week and that’s direct contact, it’s much higher risk than many other jobs,” she says. Ellsie ended up in hospital with her first bout of Covid-19 in late March, has had to isolate as a household contact, and tested positive again last week. The ongoing uncertainty about when she’ll next have to take time off work and whether she’ll get financial support has meant she’s started a “rainy day” savings account.
Much of that uncertainty is because hospitality workers are often casual workers or with changing rosters and fluctuating hours, making it difficult to figure out what financial entitlements are available. “Legislation was never designed for people who work in such a particular situation,” Ellsie says.
She’d like some assurance that the isolation subsidy will stick around, arguing that losing it would mean a hard choice between isolating with no pay, or coming into work and risking infecting co-workers. “I don’t know where it’s going, but I know I’m nervous about it.”