May 4, 2021 | By Graeme Kemlo

A little-known knock-on effect of COVID-19 is hampering the efforts of major city hotels to return to normal trading in 2021 with most being badly impacted by a lack of housekeeping staff.

Prior to COVID, many employed their own housekeeping staff, but as part of reducing direct costs as the pandemic hurt occupancy rates of both leisure and business hotels, there was a move to outsource most or all of these services to dedicated agencies.

Hotel housekeeping duties have often been jobs undertaken by workers on special visas or international students within their allowed hours of employment. However with the ban on international students and other visa holders entering Australia, even the specialist hotel employment agencies are struggling to supply sufficient staff to major hotels.

Nobody wants to put their names to the issue, but the end result is that major hotels in Melbourne and Sydney have been forced to put a cap on their occupancy because they cannot get rooms cleaned in time.

Nobody wants to talk publicly about the issue. But the hospitality industry has been dependent on part-time employment of international students for many years in back-of-house roles such as kitchen staff as well as customer-facing wait staff, which is proving to be another pain point, particularly for events.

micenet is aware of at least two major hotels in Sydney and one in Melbourne that cannot accept bookings for more than 40 per cent of their rooms. Some business events planners looking for residential hotel conferences are also affected as hotels cannot currently guarantee the block of rooms requested.

Executive staff have rolled up their sleeves to get rooms cleaned following busy weekends like Valentine’s Day, and public holiday weekends where occupancies were above 75 per cent for the first time in almost a year.

The matter has been discussed at recent gatherings of hotel industry senior executives and attempts to employ Australian residents have been met with a “thanks, but no thanks” response.  Some hoteliers have even offered improved payment arrangements to the agencies to broaden their recruitment reach especially given that the first four months of 2021 was looking positive for four and five star hotels.

It has led some in the industry to suggest that Work for the Dole rules be tightened to “encourage” suitable people who are unemployed to take up this type of work, given it is in readily accessible city properties.