staffing crisis

Hospitality workers: Industry's 'downward spiral' will remain until pay and conditions change

A significant proportion of staff did not return to their employers after Covid-19 restrictions on the sector were lifted

HOSPITALITY WORKERS HAVE said the industry needs a serious shake-up if it is to address the current recruitment crisis, as many have decided to leave the sector entirely for better-paid jobs with more manageable hours. 

There are tens of thousands of vacancies in bars, hotels and restaurants across the country. Employers have said it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit new staff and they have warned they will face a severe crisis over the summer if the government does not extend visa permissions to allow students to remain in the country beyond the end of May.

Research has shown a significant proportion of staff did not return to their employers after Covid-19 restrictions on the sector were lifted, with many opting for a career outside of hospitality.

At the weekend, Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) questioned why there are 150,000 people unemployed in Ireland during a staffing crisis, not just in hospitality but in a number of other sectors of the economy. 

He said it was “time for a real conversation about levels of unemployment welfare/benefits in Ireland”. 

The Journal sought out the views of a number of people either currently or formerly employed in the industry on the current staffing crisis.

One former bar supervisor told us that after the pandemic he “just realised that there was more to life than working every weekend, bank holidays and every Christmas”. He has left the hospitality sector entirely.

“I’m 100% more happy, I’m not on much more money but I’m not as tired as I was and I don’t need a whole Monday to recover after a busy weekend,” he said.

When asked what he thought was discouraging people from taking on the jobs currently available in the sector, he said it was a combination of factors including “the conditions, the long hours, dealing with the public – dealing with aggressive people almost daily”.

“More money might have helped [keep me in the sector] and better family hours, but unfortunately that’s never possible,” he said. “I had to laugh at the new ad on the radio for recruiting hospitality staff – it almost sounded too good to be true which it is.”

Employment levels

Dr Alicja Bobek, a post-doctoral researcher at TU Dublin, has done extensive research on the experience of workers in hospitality sector, including during the boom, the recession and the recovery period pre-pandemic. 

She said that while attempts have been made to address certain issues – such as the ban on zero hour contracts – pay levels remain a significant barrier.

Dr Bobek said there are some challenges with these kinds of jobs that will be hard to improve due to the nature of the job, such as the working hours, the physical labour involved and the interactions with difficult customers. 

One bartender she spoke to for 2017 research told her they had walked 30,000 steps in one shift, while room service workers in hotels spoke of how physically demanding their job was and how the level of heavy lifting they had to do was not appreciated.

“If you look at the emotional labour, frontline staff are dealing with customers all the time, people are demanding and one worker said everything bad in the job came down to the customer, the abuse was incredible,” she said.

“During the pandemic you can only imagine how difficult it was trying to enforce things like masks, it must have been horrible. That kind of emotional labour and the physical demands are not recognised in the pay they receive.

Instead of giving people higher wages, the work has actually intensified for people even more. And time is not measured by the clock but by task, so if you work in a hotel and you were doing five rooms in an hour, they could decide to make that seven rooms in an hour. The rooms have to be done – and done well – so if you’re not finished you’re working through your lunch break.

Like the bar manager who spoke to The Journal, many other workers may have taken the time they were out of work during the pandemic to consider their career prospects and their work-life balance, she said.

Research by Fáilte Ireland identified up to 40,000 vacancies in the sector, though it has been suggested this estimated may be “overblown”.

The research found that 42% of tourism and hospitality workers did not return to their pre-pandemic employers. Almost one third of workers (33,500 people) in the industry found jobs in a new sector. 

“If you look at employment levels, they’re high, so these workers are not unemployed – they have moved,” Dr Bobek said.

According to the latest statistics from the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the unemployment rate stood at 4.8% in April this year – this compared to an unemployment rate of 5.4% in April 2019.  The number of people employed at the end of 2021 stood at 2,506,000, according to the CSO, compared to 2,357,300 in the final quarter of 2019, just before the pandemic hit. 

Dr Bobek pointed to a disparity in earnings between workers in the accommodation and food sector at €397 per week at the end of 2021, compared to weekly wages in the wholesale and retail trade sector (at €654 per week) which many of these employees would have transferable skills for. 

She said that while unsociable hours are an unavoidable factor in hospitality, workers in other sectors who work nights and weekends are compensated with higher rates of pay and this is not something that is taken into account in many hospitality roles. 

Shortage of chefs

The Fáilte Ireland research found that employers were  finding it hard to recruit culinary staff, with 88% who need them saying they were having considerable difficulty recruiting. 

One chef who spoke to The Journal said he believes the perception of these jobs is keeping new talent out. 

“I think in some part it’s because chefs are seen as an unskilled job outside of people in the industry, hospitality is is often referred to as unskilled labour,” he said.

“TV shows have a negative impact to a certain degree, we have young people who go to college and have never been in a professional kitchen before thinking it’s all glamorous and when they actually get into a kitchen they don’t last as it’s hard demanding work, it’s not seen as an attractive career.”

He runs the kitchen in a hotel and said maintaining a life outside of work can be challenging – he only got to see his toddler for a half an hour each day over four days last week. 

The chef also said with the cost of living and the shortage of affordable accommodation, it has become harder for those in the industry to make enough money to support their families.

“When I started working in hospitality 25 years ago, a chef, waiter or barman could actually get a mortgage; this has not been the case in the last good few years as the wages don’t meet the criteria for a mortgage in Ireland,” he said.

Pay is a significant factor, he said, as the job is stressful and physically demanding, but some in the industry are expected to work between 10 and 20 hours a week for free.

“I don’t allow the chefs [in my kitchen] to be on salaries, so they get paid for every hour they work, I’ve seen too many places put people on salaries and work them to the bone, they usually do about 46 to 48 hours a week,” he said.

“I think the industry has been in a downward spiral for many years, business people got into the industry and it was always a race to the bottom, cheap labour etc.

“Unfortunately to increase the wages the automatic thing is to up the prices which would make it unaffordable for people to use the services, so I think other areas need to be looked at such as insurance, energy costs and tax this would allow owners to free up money to improve wages.”

Mary Farrell, executive chef for Morton’s supermarket, has no intention of leaving the industry after 35 years, but she believes it is time for change. 

“Where I work there’s a very good environment, there’s a lot of flexibility so I’m lucky,” she told The Journal.

“I’m well treated, I work day hours, I generally have weekends off other than the off weekend and we have a good roster system so while people do work weekends. They also have some off and there’s a recognition that those with families have to be accommodated.”

“If something happened in my job now and I was out of work I wouldn’t go back to working night hours in a kitchen, I just wouldn’t be able for it now and I consider myself very capable, I just wouldn’t be able to sacrifice my freedom for that now.”

She said many workers during the pandemic may have realised that while they were working unsociable hours they were “missing other important things”.

Farrell said that while a higher rate of pay is one obvious solution, the issue is not entirely related to pay. 

“It’s always been seen as a low paid and unskilled job, which is ironic, and we need to start seriously thinking about pay and conditions so it’s seen as a proper profession and everyone is respected and that you can have a good short at a career if you’re good at it,” she said.

“There’s a reluctance to talk about the negatives in the industry – everyone knows what they are anyway so let’s talk about them and start addressing them in a serious way.”

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