‘We need people’: Berlin’s grand reopening hit by labor shortage


Before the pandemic, deputy manager Josh Fine had never had a problem finding staff for the restaurant at the trendy Michelberger hotel in Berlin. Now he advertises on social media and local food blogs in an effort to fill vacancies.

“All restaurants like us are in this situation,” Fine said. “We need people.”

After being closed for months due to coronavirus restrictions, restaurants in Berlin and much of Germany have reopened to al fresco dining over the past week, their folding tables spilling onto sidewalks . But customers in the slowly recovering German capital aren’t the problem – it’s the question of who will serve them.

A staff shortage across Europe is hampering plans to reopen hotels, restaurants and bars, threatening to dampen an expected economic rebound as vaccinations accelerate and Covid-19 restrictions are further relaxed. Some industry managers say they can raise wages to attract workers, adding to short-term inflationary pressures.

Similar problems have hit hospitality industries in other countries that have been quicker to lift coronavirus measures. In the US and Israel, high unemployment benefits have been blamed on people’s reluctance to return to work, while UK pubs have lost staff from EU countries who returned home after Brexit.

Emily Harmon, co-owner of ORA restaurant-bar in Berlin © Erika Solomon / FT

In Germany, restaurateurs have a myriad of theories as to why staff are hard to find, ranging from migrant workers who have left due to the pandemic and have not yet returned, to a flight to other sectors. , concerns about new lockdowns and frustrations with working conditions.

“One of the reasons I think we have these shortages is that the people working in the hospitality industry have gone home and over the past six months have re-evaluated their lives,” said Emily Harmon, co-owner of Ora Restaurant. in Berlin. “He highlighted the sector’s problems: low wages, long hours. . . If I hadn’t owned this business, I’m not sure I would have stayed in this industry. “

Harmon said she kept 40% of the staff after many returned home or moved to places with fewer restrictions and better weather conditions, such as Portugal or the Caribbean. Another problem was that everyone was hiring at the same time: “It puts a lot more pressure to find talent,” she says.

The total number of people employed in German restaurants and hotels rose from 2.4 million before the pandemic to just over 2 million in September, according to industry association Dehoga. Almost 600,000 of them were still on the country’s Kurzarbeit leave program in January.

Line graph from the IFO employment barometer (2015 = 100) showing the revival of the German labor market

The problem for many workers in the sector, which has largely been closed for seven months, is that many are self-employed or “mini-jobs” who do not pay tax and are not entitled to time off. Even those who were on leave received only two-thirds of their pay and had to survive without the extra they earned from tips and overtime, forcing many to look elsewhere.

“Some hotel workers have traveled to Austria or Switzerland, which reopened earlier,” said Ingrid Hartges, CEO of Dehoga.

Others have been hired by companies that thrived during the pandemic, such as Amazon, or the Aldi and Lidl supermarkets. Still, Hartges said she was optimistic that many would return. “Ours is about people, not like stacking shelves, we make people happy,” she said.

Rodrigo Franco, owner of La Despensa, a small Paraguayan restaurant in Berlin’s trendy Friedrichshain district, said he has given up on trying to hire new servers and has now handed customers freshly brewed coffee and empanadas from the counter. in wood itself.

Rodrigo Franco, who owns a Paraguayan restaurant, says many restaurant workers have gone into economic activity © Erika Solomon

“The quality of service workers here in Berlin was a disaster even before the pandemic,” Franco said. “I love to serve people, but if we’re being honest I think a lot of people don’t.” He said many restaurant workers he knew got into economic jobs, like the Gorillas grocery delivery service.

Unemployment in the EU has risen by 2 million people to 15.5 million since the pandemic hit and the European Central Bank estimates that a similar number have been fired or have dropped out of the workforce altogether.

But despite this additional “slack” in the labor market, Katharina Utermöhl, economist at Allianz, predicted that restaurants, hotels and bars might struggle to find staff for some time.

“It’s not a sustainable industry in terms of whether it can stay open; What if infection levels rise again and you have to stop? ” she said. “People may prefer to keep other jobs.”

Line graph of the unemployment rate (%) showing that the unemployment rate in Europe has been more stable than in the United States

Fine at the Hotel Michelberger said he knew a high-end restaurant manager who was running the place on his own just weeks before it was scheduled to reopen, and others who decided not to open at all yet.

The number of vacancies posted by German restaurants and hotel groups fell sharply last year, but rebounded with a 22% increase in the first three months of 2021, according to StepStone, the recruitment service in line. Likewise, searches for openings in the sector increased by 27% in April compared to the previous year.

“A lot of people will return to the hospitality industry, such as students who want to be in touch with people again rather than being stuck in their rooms studying remotely,” said Tobias Zimmermann, analyst at StepStone.

Zeev Rosenberg, manager of the Amo by Amano hotel in Berlin, called labor shortages a “personal corona revolution”, with people who once worked full time deciding they were happy to earn less. money and work less, or have weekends off.

“You tell people again: you have to work,” after months of absence from work, he said as his cooks grilled sandwiches in an open kitchen. “The whole system is changing for the employees – it’s strange for us.”

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