6 Jul 2021

Cafes, restaurants cutting hours, citing skilled staff shortage

From Checkpoint, 5:13 pm on 6 July 2021

A skills shortage in the hospitality sector is forcing cafes and restaurants to reduce hours, take items off their menus and close for a period of time.

Restaurants around the country are switching off their lights for two minutes at 7pm tonight, to bring attention to the staffing crisis.

The industry is calling for urgent visa extensions, border exemptions for critical workers, and extended working hours for student visas. 

The Restaurant Association estimates an extra 20,000 hospitality workers will be needed over the next three years. 

 Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said the sector is at a crisis point.

"This has come off the back of 14 months of reduced trading. We're in a period now where we're seeing some really great growth and trading going on in the sector but what's holding us back is not being able to find those key people for our businesses."
She said the sector needed immigration rules relaxed for skilled workers - including extending essential skills visas to allow workers to stay.

"After some of the conversations today with many business owners in tears, I do worry. I worry about the industry and the future of some of our businesses."

Odettes Eatery in central Auckland turned out its lights at lunchtime today, along with thousands of other establishments flicking the switch in solidarity.

Operations manager Poi Eruera said they were busier than before the pandemic but it was harder to find skilled staff. 

"Today I'm going to be advertising two, one very senior position and one barista. I put a job add up recently for a part-time bartender and got one application so it does really depend."

Eruera would like to see government-funded apprenticeships offered in the hospitality sector to address the skills shortage, and working visas extended further.

She said three of their staff had returned overseas and they had not had their usual influx of French nationals here on working holidays.

"There's a lot of learning on the job here and often it's been travellers who people on working holiday visas who have brought in the more experienced staff."

The crisis is being felt across the sector.

Neighbourhood cafe, Crave Cafe in Morningside, Auckland, serves about 800 coffees a day at peak times and needs to hire two baristas and two chefs after they returned home overseas.

General manager Nigel Cottle said without those staff they were closing early three days a week and might have to go further. 

"Options are we could close the kitchen for a day a week, we could make our menu much smaller and one chef could do it for a few days. We don't know, just pay lots more money, an unsustainable amount of money.

"But we're so lean as a business any way we can't afford to pay exorbitant rates."

He said they used to get CVs handed over the counter - but they had not received any in four months.

"I wouldn't have thought it would affect us. We're a social enterprise, we're a good employer, we give lots of people opportunities, we employ people from addiction backgrounds, recently out of jail, with disabilities, so we are a do-good space and I wouldn't have thought it would be hard for us to find staff but if it's hard for us we know it's hard for everyone."

Opening the border to more skilled hospitality workers can't come soon enough for businesses like Crave Cafe.

"I'd love to see the government release some of the 2000 MIQ spots it's got available right now for some overseas experience staff to come in and get jobs," said Cottle.

He said one of the cafe's chefs has not seen his baby yet, because his wife gave birth overseas and has not been able to return.

Government conscious of challenges 

Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi said the government was aware of the challenges facing the hospitality sector and has regularly reviewed border settings and made adjustments.
These include extending about 10,000 Working Holiday and Supplementary Seasonal work visas for another six months, giving Supplementary Seasonal Employer work scheme visa holders the right to work in any sector, including hospitality, and extending the essential skills visas for jobs paid below the median wage from six to 12 months.

Qualified barista Olivia Cho is among those facing visa conundrums.

She is here on a partnership visa, and will soon move with her husband to Rotorua.

Cho has noticed cafes will take on staff with little experience - a sign they are desperate. 

"At first they were looking for only experienced baristas but now they say they don't need experience, just making coffee and having passion that's all. We need more staff."