Some restaurants have resorted to poaching workers from rivals with offers of higher pay to keep their businesses running, while other eateries have been forced to shut temporarily for the first time during the pandemic.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant has left many industries, including hospitality, short-handed because thousands of workers have either tested positive to COVID-19 or need to self-isolate because they’re a close contact.

A trickle of international students and temporary workers back into the country after border closures has also exacerbated staff shortages for some businesses, while others that manage to stay open are operating on a knife edge.

Hana Tania, owner of Indonesian restaurant Ayam Ria Penyet, has been forced to get back into the kitchen to keep her South Melbourne restaurant open. 

Before the pandemic, she would normally have four to five people working at a time, but now she has to get by with only three, including herself.

“We still have to pay the bills,” Ms Tania said.

Ms Tania said whether the restaurant opened on reduced hours — or at all — was a day-to-day decision, depending on who was sick or needed to self-isolate.

On top of everything else, Ms Tania said customers were sometimes “rude” when they had to wait for their food.

“That’s why I always [ask] them before they order food if they don’t mind waiting as we catch up with orders due to staff shortages,” she said.

“Please be kind with the hospitality industry right now. We are trying our best to serve you.”

Restaurants ‘fighting over’ workers

Ms Tania said some restaurants had also resorted to poaching staff with offers of better pay.

“Let’s say we were already offering a rate based on the standard award, but a fine-dining restaurant could offer them $35 an hour to wash dishes,” she said.

“Many restaurant owners that I know told me that they can’t compete with them.

“A couple of restaurant owners have even offered to give their staff a few hundred bucks extra if they can refer and bring their friends to work.”

A woman holding a glass of iced coffee and smiling to camera
Augustina Mentari decided to work fewer hours to avoid catching COVID-19.(Supplied)

One of those to benefit from the staff shortage has been hospitality worker Agustina Mentari, who was finally able to get back to Melbourne before Christmas after being “stranded” in Indonesia for almost two years.

Ms Mentari said she was already getting job offers while she was in Indonesia, and sometimes the offer was made when the owner hadn’t even read her resume.

This week she is working as an all-rounder for $30 per hour, $10 more than two years ago, she said.

“Many of my friends, of course, would take the higher-paid jobs.

“Even in one case, when they wanted to quit the job to work in another business with a higher wage, the owners raised the pay to keep them.”

However, having caught COVID-19 in Indonesia and not wanting to repeat the experience, Ms Mentari has decided to take fewer hours to limit her exposure.

Eateries forced to shut after surviving lockdowns

While some restaurants are scraping to get by, others have been forced to shut for the foreseeable future.

An exterior building of a restaurant with a delivery man holding a bike standing in the corner
Indonesian restaurant Nelayan has temporarily closed its Hawthorn branch due to a staff shortage, but its CBD branch is still open.(Supplied)

Nelayan’s Hawthorn branch, one of Melbourne’s longest-standing Indonesian restaurants, had managed to stay open, even throughout months of lockdowns in the city.

However, it has been shut since last week due to a shortage of staff and won’t reopen until the owner finds a new chef.

Owner Samuel Sanusi told the ABC the head chef at Nelayan’s Hawthorn branch was going home to Indonesia for at least a few weeks and he couldn’t find a replacement.

“He hasn’t visited his family since Melbourne’s [first] lockdown and, of course, I need to be wise by letting him go,” Mr Sanusi said.

He said that, despite searching for three months to find a replacement, he had not been able to find anyone with the necessary experience.

“I have been trying in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, no luck yet … even from Indonesia,” he said.

A man standing in front of a coffee machine in a cafe
Tai Chin Hua says he is getting fewer customers now than he did during Melbourne’s lockdowns.(Supplied)

Working longer hours but earning less

In Melbourne’s south-east, Tai Chin Hua, owner of Vegi and Coffee Lover in Caulfield, has decided to serve takeaway food only due to a lack of workers.

The cafe opened right before the second lockdown and is also struggling to find new staff.

“I don’t know why, but we are now getting less customers compared to during the … lockdowns,” Mr Hua said.

“One of my staff is a close contact and couldn’t work, and another staff [member] is so fearful of the current spread of COVID that they decided to stop working.

“We only have about three or four staff, in total, so losing one or two people has a huge impact.”

Mr Hua said he was working more than 10 hours every day, and yet he was earning less money.

“Myself and the existing staff need to do more hours and more tasks. For example, service staff also need to help out in the kitchen,” he said.

Mr Hua said he had been advertising for new staff but no-one was applying.

He said this may be a result of a lack of international workers coming into Australia. 

“It’s really difficult to hire now, because we sell Asian-style food and, thus, need bilingual staff who can speak Mandarin/Cantonese and English,” he said.

“The future is uncertain and I don’t know what’s waiting ahead tomorrow … but I have no choice but to endure and continue. 

“The government allowances during the lockdown helped greatly, but we don’t have that anymore now. We need it more now than before.”

Staff wages have ‘skyrocketed’

A man standing in front of a window and smiling to camera
Wes Lambert says the government should start exploring options to support the industry.(Supplied)

In November, the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association of Australia warned that consumers would need to prepare their wallets for increased menu prices in the new year due to the rising costs of goods, combined with businesses struggling to find workers.

Association chief executive Wes Lambert said the “unfortunate” part of the staffing shortage was that wages had “skyrocketed”.

“Whilst we appreciate the competitive wages, unfortunately, many businesses just aren’t able to address these wage pressures and have no choice but to shut on quiet days or nights,” Mr Lambert said.

He said the border closures meant Australia was missing out on the greatest talent the world had to offer. 

“They want to work here and consumers miss out especially,” he said.

He said it was crucial for the survival of the industry that governments look at bringing back financial support schemes such as those offered earlier in the pandemic. 

Ms Tania said changes to the definition of a “close contact” had helped business owners but the hospitality sector needed more government support.

“We know we are starting to live with the virus, but when we are all reopening, who is going to work? I think the government needs to think about that too,” she said.

Additional reporting by Mengjie Cai

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