“We’re All In The Same Boat”: 5 Sydney Hospo Workers On How They Feel About Reopening

“There are workers who aren’t going to have enough hours and need financial support until we can get more people into the venue.”

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After more than 100 days of lockdown — literally an entire season of the survival TV series Alone — NSW started reopening today, after hitting its 70 percent vaccination target.

While you might be ready to slaughter a schooner at a pub near you, hospitality workers have been busy figuring out how they’re going to navigate the delicate reality of serving customers post-lockdown. Though many venues opened for service today, businesses are still confused about how they’ll ensure customers are vaccinated, with vaccine passport integration between Medicare and the Service NSW app still on trial until at least October 18.

To make things worse, in a move labeled “absolute bullshit” by the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, Federal disaster payments are set to be scrapped once Australia hits its 80 percent double vaccination target. With this date predicted to arrive as soon as next month, the individual fates of casual hospitality workers across the state could depend on how their workplaces have prepared to support them.

Five young hospitality workers spoke to Junkee about the many feelings they’re having ahead of going back to work after four months of lockdown.

Protecting Staff After Lockdown

Madeline Ward, a venue manager at Mary’s Newtown, told Junkee that making sure her staff are rostered for enough hours under conditions of restricted capacity is the “biggest thing that’s pressing my mind at the moment”.

“I think the hardest thing at the start of lockdown was having to call all of my staff, and having to tell them we didn’t have any shifts for the foreseeable future,” said the 24-year-old.

“The fact that that support has been ripped away is quite immoral and awful.”

While Madeline is incredibly thankful that most of her original staff will be returning to work this week, she’s concerned about what will happen once the Federal COVID-19 disaster payments end. “I think the fact that the government is cutting funding and support for hospitality workers is really ridiculous,” said Madeline.

“We’re entering the phase of the pandemic where, as we open up, transmissions are going to spike and hospital rates are going to increase, so the likelihood that we’re going to catch COVID as hospitality workers is higher now than ever. The fact that support has been ripped away is quite immoral and awful.”

Madeline Ward / Supplied

On Checking Vaccine Passports

Charnelle Lafrenais is a casual bartender and waitress at Bella Bruta and LP’s Quality Meats, who is also heading back to work this week. The challenge of distinguishing the vaccination status of customers is not something she’s looking forward to.

“I guess the responsibility of checking whether people are vaccinated or not is going to fall to us,” the 26-year-old told Junkee. “I’m not looking forward to that. I feel like it’s a lot of responsibility that’s not really part of the role that I’ve been doing.”

From disinfecting tables to helping customers use QR codes, Charnelle has adapted to changing conditions in both of her workplaces since the pandemic began two years ago. She says her colleagues are some of the best people she’s ever met and has been impressed with the organisation her employers have shown when handling her safety at work.

The contagious nature of the Delta strain, combined with the withdrawal of government support means that, for Charnelle, facing a potential COVID exposure is more dangerous now than ever before.

“If that did happen and the restaurant shut, and I couldn’t get access to government help, I wouldn’t have an income, which is a bit scary,” she said.

Frustration Over Regulations And A Lack of Job Security

Like Charnelle, 34-year-old Iain Mckelvey, a bar duty manager at Grifter Brewery in Marrickville, is frustrated at the mounting list of procedures his venue has to consider to conduct service.

“It feels like the government has gone ‘Yeah we’re opening up, pubs and clubs can re-open, annnd that’s the end of my job!’ And all of a sudden it becomes my job. Me, who gets paid $25 an hour to manage someone’s double vaccination passport, intox, and also make sure they’ve checked in,” Iain told Junkee.

While he can’t speak highly enough of Grifter and the policies they’ve explored to provide for their staff — including paying staff members who miss work to get tested — Iain has seen colleagues leave hospitality in this recent lockdown in favour of more secure industries.

“A lot of the casuals are doing that,” he said. “The common theme seems to be ‘security’ and the recognition that so many industries can be doing work from home.”

A Greater Focus On Mental Health

Lina MacGregor, a 25-year-old waitress at Sydney’s Chin Chin, has noticed that for her and some close friends in the same industry, lockdown has been a really important period to focus on mental health — something she said she had been distracted from doing prior to the recent lockdown.

“A lot of my friends have had the opportunity to spend time finding a therapist and talk about their issues and how they’re feeling about themselves and the world,” she said.

The idea of going full ham in such a busy restaurant just makes me feel sick if I’m being truly honest.

After her workplace closed at the beginning of June, Lina used her new free time, and support from Federal disaster payments, to begin a period of “self-help”, during whih she focused on her creative pursuits while planning for the future. After not working for several months, Lina was surprised to find out she’d been rostered on for 35 hours of work this week.

“I think with this massive break we’ve had, the chance to be slow and be thoughtful and just take a little breather, the idea of going full ham in such a busy restaurant just makes me feel sick if I’m being truly honest,” she said.

Lina MacGregor / Supplied

Simply Asking For Patience

Aggy Januskevicius, 31, is a casual waitress at Cafe Paci in Newtown, and can’t wait to get back to work.

“I think we’re fully booked for the first weekend we’re open, so that’s exciting.” Aggy told Junkee. “Everyone is going to be a little bit scared and awkward, but we’re all in the same boat. We just have to work it out together.”

While Aggy’s situation has been better this lockdown — with disaster payments providing better support than JobKeeper, which she accessed last year — she’s still frustrated by the situation facing casuals.

“It’s shit, because a lot of people were working 2-3 days a week, and that shift may go down to one day a week because we don’t have as many people in the venue,” she said. “There are workers who aren’t going to have enough hours and need financial support until we can get more people into the venue.”

Despite these concerns, Aggy has no interest in transitioning to another industry outside of hospitality, and plans to open her own restaurant one day. She’s looking forward to returning to the adrenaline of service socialising with customers she hasn’t seen since the beginning of lockdown.

“People are the best thing. Sometimes you have such wonderful customers that really make your night and you have a really good time with them and that’s amazing.”

More Uncertainty After Lockdown

For better or for worse, the government has taken steps to make it easier for businesses to survive potential COVID-19 outbreaks by bringing the isolation requirements for close contacts who are double vaccinated down to seven days. But there have been no updates on whether crisis support payments will return for hospitality workers who lose work due to COVID.

While NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has already deviated from Gladys Berejiklian’s original reopening roadmap by doubling the capacity of visitors allowed at NSW homes on Monday, it remains to be seen whether the hospitality sector has enough to support to warrant the celebration that Perrottet said NSW has “earned” today.

Charles Rushforth is a journalist and music nerd who tweets at @_rushforth_.