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‘Never happened before’: lack of hospitality staff forces Melbourne bar to close its doors

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Melbourne institution Cherry Bar shuttered its doors for the first time in its history over the weekend as fallout from hospitality staffing shortages continue.

“I made a call I never had to make in 15 years and said ‘We can’t open because we don’t have any staff’,” rock promoter James Young said. “We had to close the fucking doors.”

The live music venue was due to hold a showcase event on Sunday with rock trio Cross Bones Boogie. But Young took to social media on the weekend to announce the band would be rescheduled.

“Everyone worked too hard and too late last night,” he wrote on Facebook. “Staffing is a real issue in hospitality at the moment … this has never happened ever before.”

Related: Australia’s workforce shortage: ‘never a better time to be applying for a job’, experts say

Since lockdown restrictions were lifted, Young has shortened the opening hours of his two 24-hour-licence venues – CBD rock’n’roll venue Cherry Bar and Collingwood dance spot Yah Yahs – due to staffing shortages.

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry manager of policy and advocacy, Dylan Broomfield, said the “significant” shortages in the hospitality sector were pushing many venues to reduce their opening hours.

The constraints are expected to continue for months, in part due to the hospitality sector’s heavy reliance on international students and short-term visitors.

International students and skilled migrants were to have been allowed back into Australia from 1 December but the reopening was delayed to 15 December due to concerns over the Omicron strain of the virus.

“Skilled chefs, bar staff, waitstaff and kitchen staff are all in high demand and there’s a lot of competition between venues to ensure that they can maintain adequate staffing levels,” Broomfield said.

“Some venues are having to decrease their operating hours and days simply because they don’t have the staffing capabilities.”

Broomfield said many hospitality workers found employment in other industries that offered greater certainty during prolonged lockdowns which was contributing to the shortage.

Young said Cherry Bar had continually been attempting to hire since restrictions eased in Melbourne to keep up with business – which had come back “with a vengeance”.

“Try getting a decent restaurant booking at the moment, they’re all frigging packed because everyone’s out,” he said. “If I had more staff I would open Cherry Bar seven days a week 6pm to 6am, we’d be the place to go to at 3am when you’re still out and don’t want to go to the casino.”

Until Sunday, Young had managed to stay open, but limited staffing numbers, coupled with a Covid scare at Yah Yahs on Friday, had led to the decision to shut.

“Managers had been working very late, and bars are doing well now … we hadn’t had full capacity for over 20 months,” he said.

“While we weren’t contacted by the government we knew there’d been a Covid exposed person at Yah Yahs on Friday and decided all staff would be tested. It meant on Saturday we had to spread staff even thinner by bringing Cherry staff across to bridge the gap.

Young said there were no senior managers available to open Cherry Bar on Sunday unless they had a three-hour break between shifts.

Related: Free flights and $1,000 vouchers: Australian hospitality sector lures UK workers

“But in praise of Melbourne, the attitude has been all ships rise to the tide, we’re not competing. I thought three people would see my post and say ‘Oh, see you next week’ but I got calls from venues saying ‘I’ve got six staff, I can probably get by with five’ which is a lovely attitude.

“The silver lining of this horror experience as the most locked-down city is we’ve come out the other side more caring of each other because we all value the scene we’re in.”

Hospo Voice United Workers Union director Karma Lord said underpayment and a lack of job security were contributing to the staffing shortages hitting the sector generally.

“This industry continues to preside over endemic wage theft and extreme job insecurity, with four out of five workers casually employed,” Lord said.

“Trained, experienced workers have quit this industry in droves. We’re seeing some venues offer sign-on bonuses and other inducements. But the danger is workers will find the rug pulled from underneath them when competition for workers start to ease off.”

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