Restaurateurs have called on the Government to bring forward the phasing-out of pandemic unemployment payments (PUP) as they struggle to fill “thousands” of vacancies.
Indoor service in restaurants and pubs resumed on Monday after months of closure because of Covid-19 restrictions. Industry participants said the availability of PUP payments had contributed to a labour shortage made worse by some workers securing jobs in other sectors and non-Irish-national staff leaving the State.
The PUP scheme is to be wound down from September but Adrian Cummins, chief of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said “the Government should bring that forward” in sectors that have fully reopened.
“There’s thousands of jobs to be filled,” he said.
“We had a major skills shortage within hospitality, and now with over 30 per cent of our workforce gone to other sectors in the economy during Covid – like healthcare, retail and construction – the crisis is exacerbated, so much so that 25 per cent of restaurants cannot operate a full service and may have to curtail their days of trading.
“What we’re hearing on the ground is that people who were working in the sector moved on to the PUP payment – and rightly so during Covid – and now won’t return to hospitality because they’re on the PUP payment and claiming cash in hand in other jobs.”
Data shows that 47,640 accommodation and food service workers were on the PUP last week, the largest group among 202,152 claimants. The figure of such workers was down 3,114 in one week and down from 131,230 in May 2020, when the PUP scheme peaked with 602,100 claimants.
People in two large restaurant groups who spoke on condition of anonymity said there was an acute labour shortage.
“If you want a job in Ireland, it’s there for you. That’s across all levels: management, customer service staff, what have you. It’s very difficult. We just can’t get people to work for us,” said a senior figure in one group who cited PUP as a big problem for the sector.
The other person said the main concern was that staff had retrained to work in other sectors but acknowledged that the lack of workers was “worse than ever before” as indoor service resumes.
“Huge amounts have left the industry altogether because it was closed for so long,” the person said. “A lot of non-nationals have gone home and are not returning to Ireland. The PUP has added to it as well.”
Siptu, the largest trade union in the State, dismissed the notion that the PUP was driving labour constraints .
“Before the pandemic arose at all, the situation was that the Irish hospitality industry had to go abroad looking for chefs and had to seek special provision from the Government to secure work permits for them,” said Martin O’Rourke, Siptu organiser for hospitality.
“The truth is this: many, many hospitality workers are sick of the precarious nature of the industry and poor treatment. Some were laid off with scant regard, weren’t availing of the wage subsidy scheme and instead were dumped on the PUP. Many have voted with their feet and left the industry.”
Restaurateurs said labour constraints linked to PUP were not limited to the sector, saying the problem had forced some hotels to operate below capacity.
Elaina Fitzgerald Kane, president of the Irish Hotels Federation, said the primary constraint on hotels was the lack of physical space to operate within Covid restrictions, and that the PUP was an issue “to a degree” for some.
The prime concern for hotels was to ensure the employment wage subsidy scheme continued beyond its scheduled closure in December, she added. “My focus and my priority would be to see certainty around [the scheme] at an enhanced level until April 2022. The reason for that is that it will sustain the employment through the off-peak period,” she said.
“It’s like being on life support, everybody is availing of it that meets the parameters, and there is no doubt that it is sustaining a huge amount of livelihoods and communities. In many communities, tourism is the only show in town.”
Margaret O’Brien, chief of Ennis Chamber in Co Clare, said “a minority” of hospitality establishments in the town could not reopen due to labour constraints. “Most of them are actually okay about staff down here,” she said.
Willie Aherne, owner of the Palace Bar on Fleet Street, Dublin, retained all full-time staff but said other pubs around the city were struggling to fill posts. “I’m hearing all around town now that it’s a serious issue … There’s probably a drain in the industry in terms of the uncertainty of it for so long.”