‘A perfect storm’ and ‘a nightmare’ is how a hotelier and restaurateur in the west of Ireland described the crisis in staffing and accommodation as the storm approaches height of the summer season.
Westport hotelier Darren Madden says the staff shortage has been exacerbated by university students, normally the backbone of the seasonal service industry, leaving the country on JI visas and local staff reassessing their lives professional following the pandemic.
The hospitality industry has become even more dependent on overseas workers and teenagers who have just completed Junior Cert but are restricted by protective regulations because of their age, he says.
“I gave a lovely Spanish guy a job last month as a kitchen porter. We pulled two properties we had for Airbnb off the market to use as staff. I offered him a room in an apartment with other staff but he wanted to bring his wife and small child and live in that room and she was available to do housework for us however I was not comfortable with the apartment space they would have as a family. After failing to find a suitable place to stay in County Mayo, he traveled to Killarney to see if he could find a job there with accommodation. He is returned to his hometown of Cómpeta,” says Madden.
Madden is the Chairman of Co Mayo of the Irish Hotel Federation (IHF) and co-owner with his wife, Maria Ruddy, of the Clew Bay Hotel. The issue of derelict buildings, even in a pretty planned town like Westport, is a persistent problem that should have been tackled by the government a long time ago, he says.
“The priority should be the redevelopment of derelict, vacant and unoccupied properties. Local authorities have said they will act on this; well, there have been abandoned buildings in this town for over two decades,” he says.
In Galway city and Barna village, longtime restaurateur Michael O’Grady says staffing issues have been “a nightmare” this year.
“We have been at Kirwan’s Lane for 25 years [off Quay Street] and 21 at O’Grady’s on the Pier in Barna and it’s the worst year we’ve ever had,” says O’Grady. “For a while we had to stop serving lunches and only open five days a week,” he says.
During Covid we had to limit the number of people eating in our bar, now we have to restrict them as the reduction in staff determines how many people we can accommodate.
“Since the pandemic, some of our regular employees have a new perspective on life and do not want to work split shifts or evenings. Of our 72 employees, the core was historically from industry. During the pandemic, some of them returned home to their home countries in Europe while others left the industry altogether,” he says.
Ironically, says O’Grady, he has “emails a mile from people in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and South Africa, who want to come and work here but the endless bureaucracy is too prohibitive”.
In Clifden, his brother Shane, who runs Guys Bar and Restaurant, resorted to fitting out two apartments in a building he owns to accommodate staff. “One of them is still empty, even though I advertised everywhere. During Covid we had to limit the number of people eating in our bar, now we have to restrict them as the reduced level of staff determines how many people we can accommodate,” he says.
Back in Westport, Michael Lennon, hotelier and former national president of the IHF, offers a more drastic long-term solution to the housing shortage. It’s like other hoteliers in town resorting to buying properties to accommodate staff, while there are suggestions that a hotelier is buying a B&B to accommodate staff.
“There must be comprehensive and strategic planning legislation instituted around transitional and seasonal accommodation. When I worked in Geneva, more than 40 years ago, I stayed in this type of accommodation. It is supplied to workers at ski resorts all over Europe,” says Lennon.
In a recent meeting with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Lennon spoke about the urgency of better regulation of Airbnbs.
“He confirmed that Fáilte Ireland is planning to tackle this. Short-term rentals must have some sort of tourist certification. Fire regulations and insurance cover must be brought up to par with other vendors,” says Lennon.