Restaurants struggle to fill staff vacancies ahead of reopening

Loss of staff abroad, the cost of living and reluctance to come off PUP cited as factors

Nisheeth Tak, owner of Indian restaurant Rasam in Glasthule, Dublin. Photograph: Jade Wilson

Nisheeth Tak, owner of Indian restaurant Rasam in Glasthule, Dublin. Photograph: Jade Wilson

 

After months of shutdown it should be a time of optimism for restaurants and hospitality outlets as reopening approaches. But many in the sector say they now face a new problem of staff shortages and difficulties rehiring.

Despite safety protocols applied by venues, hiring difficulties persist due to a range of factors, owners say, including fears over the possibility of future lockdowns, staff leaving the sector for other jobs or to move abroad, and the persistently high cost of living.

Nisheeth Tak, owner of Indian restaurant Rasam, said he has “never had problems hiring to this extent” in the 18 years his restaurant has been open in Glasthule, Dublin.

Part of the problem is the large volume of venues hiring, and the “small pool of applicants”, he told The Irish Times.

He has five vacancies to fill, and interviewed just three people last week, none of whom ended up taking the job.

While his full-time staff who were on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) have come back, some part-timers are “not keen to return because they’re getting more money on the PUP”.

Other former staff took jobs in supermarkets and retail while the restaurant was closed, or returned to their home countries abroad.

Under the Government’s plan restaurants and bars will reopen on June 7th for outdoor services only, five days after the reopening of hotels.

“We have a skeleton staff we can manage with but if we don’t fill these roles I’ll be working seven days a week. Or we’ll have to close for one day a week,” Mr Tak said.

Cost of living

While an exodus from the sector and immigrant workers leaving Ireland was exacerbating understaffing in hospitality, restaurant owner Julie Shiels said the cost of living in Ireland was “by far the biggest problem”.

Ms Shiels and her wife Kirsty Argyle opened Hartley’s restaurant in Dún Laoghaire in 2007. They first encountered hiring difficulties four years ago, and the pandemic has “only made it worse”.

Ms Sheils said it was “understandable” that some hospitality workers had left for jobs in other sectors which had already reopened.

“People are paying 50 per cent of their earnings on rent. They can’t survive not working, or on only €350 a week. The issue of people leaving the sector will level out, but the problem with the cost of living was there before the pandemic and it has come back with a vengeance.”

She has had “many conversations” with her staff about this issue. Hospitality is “not an attractive industry to enter when rent is so expensive, and when the idea of mortgages is fanciful”.

Restaurant owners would “love to have fewer staff and pay everyone more” but the job was labour intensive and required “an awful lot of staff”.

Hartley’s restaurant in Dún Laoghaire. Photograph: Jade Wilson
Hartley’s restaurant in Dún Laoghaire. Photograph: Jade Wilson

Most staff at Hartley’s are “delighted to return” but it had been especially tough to replace those who had gone home abroad.

“Restaurants would never be able to survive if we only had Irish staff. It’ll take a while to see international staff come back now, especially because the price of rent will likely make them change their minds,” Ms Sheils said.

It’s a similar story for some restaurants in the city centre. A staff member at a Camden Street restaurant said it had been “kind of impossible to get people in”.

Publicans

A spokesman for the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland said there was a “general worry” among publicans around the country about staffing levels, in particular getting part-time employees to return to work. Their biggest concern was whether this reopening would be permanent as staff “would prefer to stay on PUP than only be working for a few weeks before closing again”.

Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said employers were left with “very few options” when “safe employment is offered and rejected by employees”.

While “PUP is necessary and vital for some” it was “unfair to genuine claimants if it is seen and used as a deterrent to return to work by a minority”.

In these cases, Mr Cummins said, “the Department of Social Protection must step in as businesses need staff to reopen”.