The spike of COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant has directly affected trading within the industry.

Community infection is higher than ever before. 708,180 active cases have been recorded across the country and hospitality workers are among those.

Businesses in Australia are currently experiencing difficulties with staffing due to employees either testing positive or being named as close contacts.

“We’ve got just under 2600 team members that actually work for us at Australian Venue Company in Queensland,” says Queensland State Manager for Australian Venue Co. Scott Brydson. “With the current COVID-19 [situation] throughout the community after double vaccinations, we’ve probably had around 450 come down with it so far.

“What we are seeing is close contact infection rates go up with a member of the household coming down with it and obviously they can’t work for us with that seven-day [isolation].”

At Ho Jiak in Sydney, Owner Junda Khoo is currently supporting staff that have tested positive, with some needing more than seven days off. “Initially, everyone was getting a notification that they were a close contact and they had to isolate for seven days,” says Khoo. “Then for the last two weeks, everyone was testing positive rather than being just a close contact.

“Different people have different symptoms, some were okay after two days some were still not okay after 10 or 13, so the return time of our staff varied, and we could only take it one day at a time.”

The main priority for business owners is ensuring the safety of their employees and to support them through isolation periods. Assistance has been given through food, supplies and finances while they are home bound.

“On a daily basis we keep a log sheet that shows every team member that has advised us if they’re infected or if they’re a close contact,” says Brydson. “Once that happens, we measure the seven days [of isolation] for them to be paid their entitlements for sick leave.

“If they are isolating, we give them a $200 Uber voucher depending on where they live in Queensland. It supports them with placing any orders for food, etc. while they’re in quarantine for those seven days.”

There has been a growing concern for the safety of those in the industry and businesses are having to adjust operations in order to accommodate workers. “I’ve been lucky enough to have staff, but with COVID-19 and the lockdowns, those kinds of things are starting to prove a bit tricky,” says Shannon Martinez, owner of Smith and Daughters in Melbourne.

“Because I’ve got so many, we’ve still been able to run whether that be shorter days, but this has been much harder than any of the lockdowns beforehand because there’s no financial support anymore.”

For Martinez, supplying employees with rapid antigen tests is paramount. “We provide rapid antigen tests for them because no one can get them,” she says. “We’re trying to find them the same as they are, so we’re kind of on this mission of whenever we see them, we just buy them and keep them at work.”

In Queensland, Australian Venue Co. is on the same mission, relying on other states for their supply. “It’s been difficult to get our hands on them in Queensland, so I had a shipment brought up from Melbourne,” says Brydson. “I haven’t been able to get them up to Far North Queenslanders. I’ve got more stock on the way, however with interstate logistics issues, some of the logistics companies are coming down — or their staff are coming down — with infection as well.”

The lack of government support has made the situation dire when it comes keeping staff employed and providing them with sufficient sick leave entitlements. Hospitality operators are becoming frustrated with the current state of affairs. “The amount of sick leave we’re paying out right now is outrageous and we’re only just starting to get back on our feet [and] money back in the bank,” says Martinez. “We have to pay sick leave for those who aren’t at work plus the people to come in [and] replace them, if we have them. Our wages have skyrocketed the past few weeks because we are paying for people to not be at work.”

Restaurants are expected to remain open while the rest of the public are encouraged to stay home and take caution when going out. As a result, many venues are trying to keep their staff rostered on so they can earn enough money to “put a roof over their head” says Khoo.

“We’ve got eight people on one shift where I would probably do only five tables for lunch but I’m still rostering them on because I know they need the income to pay for their rent and food,” he says.

Possible solutions include bringing in more overseas workers or visa workers who have made up a big part of the workforce for years. “Our office down in Melbourne went over to a number of countries for potential opportunities within our kitchen teams,” says Brydson. “They are really looking for head chefs more than anything else, we’ve already had a number of applications.”

While initiatives have been set up to bring in international candidates, it’s a matter of navigating border restrictions. “I don’t think there’s really anything that the Premier can do unless they open up our international borders and we start seeing further talent moving around the world,” adds Brydson.

At this time, venue managers are looking to the government for guidance as well as financial support. “The main thing for me is not so much the financial side, I think it’s just confidence. Confidence in us, confidence in the market and confident consumers,” says Khoo. “As long as they come out and give us direction and the confidence, I think we will come back faster and stronger. That’s what I want to see from the government.”

Although Job Keeper and Job Seeker are no longer available, the safety of hospitality staff and patrons is of the utmost importance with the spread of the new variant. “I’m definitely not expecting Job Keeper, I’m expecting them to look after my staff that are sick,” says Martinez. “I think for any industry that doesn’t have the luxury to work from home, we should be given assistance to make sure they’re not being infected.

“With these venues the masks come off and everyone is putting themselves at a small amount of risk to do their job. I really think the government should be helping us in that situation.”

Image Credit: NSW Government