23 Nov 2021

Queenstown businesses grappling with staff shortages ahead of summer

7:55 pm on 23 November 2021

Queenstown businesses are grappling with severe staff shortages - with some managers preparing to pitch in on the front line this summer.

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Queenstown Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ruth Stokes says many businesses are in a bad way. Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Fully-vaccinated people will be able to cross the Auckland border freely from the middle of next month.

But workers remained in short supply in the resort town, with people leaving to seek more stability, lower costs or return home.

Queenstown Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ruth Stokes said many businesses were in a bad way.

"From what we're hearing, this would be one of the worst positions businesses have ever found themselves in.

"We know that there are statistics such as it is the hardest to find people in almost 20 years."

She expected businesses would be forced to adapt the same way they did when the trans Tasman bubble reopened earlier this year.

"You will see restrictions on numbers of rooms available in hotels. You will see restaurants having to be closed at lunchtime or on different days of the week just so they manage their staff."

The Rees Hotel's chief executive, Mark Rose, was working out how to maintain their high standards without hiring more staff.

He has gone from 120 to 48 staff during the pandemic.

"That's going to entail me going back and cooking in the kitchen. I'm a chef by trade ... I'm getting a bit long in the tooth but for me to go in and give them a hand just to get through this peak.

"So that's the first part. We don't want to bring on any more staff without visibility of a border - to preferably Australia - opening."

While they had an initial rush of bookings from Aucklanders, that had since settled down and they were preparing for a peak of visitors from 28 December until early January.

Mark Rose was preparing for a 15 percent increase in their wage budget to ensure they could attract and keep staff.

His business offered a minimum wage of just under $24 an hour.

"But I'm expecting for that to go above $25 an hour ... and I wouldn't be at all surprised if at some point next year, we'll be getting up towards $30 an hour as our entry level wage."

He was also budgeting for other costs to go up including for quality ingredients, sheets, towels and hair products.

"I have an expectation that only through transport that they're going to have to go up in price. But labour's going to affect those businesses as well, increased costs of labour ... and ultimately this is all going to be passed on to the consumer."

He'd like a rough timeframe for when the transTasman bubble would reopen.

Carlyn Topp started going to local high schools six months ago checking if any students wanted a summer job to stave off worker shortages.

She's the general manager of Highview Apartments in Queenstown and Marina Terrace Accommodation in Wānaka.

Many businesses were struggling to find and afford staff, she said.

"Everybody's really watching their bottom dollar. They're wanting to have a viable business so they're not spending anything that they don't need to.

"We don't know if the bookings are going to happen. We don't know if three weeks later Auckland's going to go back into lockdown."

So far, she hadn't noticed a significant impact of the Auckland border announcement, saying there were just as many cancellations as bookings.

Topp was looking to either hold over rooms or use outside contractors or rental workers to cover the busy period.

"It's not feasible to take on somebody and expect them to just to work for you for a ten day period or to be on a casual contract that they may never get more work out of you for another couple of weeks or something."

The Queenstown Chamber of Commerce said bookings from Aucklanders had been steady, but the resort town would have plenty of room over summer.

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