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Covid-19 Unemployment Crisis Continues to Hit Hospitality Hardest

Of over 800,000 jobs lost in the year to March 2021, almost half were in the sector

A service staff working behind the counter at Kahaila, a coffee shop Ejatu Shaw/Eater London

As outdoor reopening offers some hope to London’s hospitality community, new Covid-19 unemployment figures are a sobering reminder of the impact of the past twelve months. According to figures from the Office of National Statistics, (ONS) of 813,000 “paid employees” removed from payrolls between March 2020 and 2021, 355,000 were in the hospitality sector — almost half.

This is a familiar story. In November 2020, figures within the same parameters saw hospitality account for 300,000 losses out of 819,000; by August 2020, at least 22,000 restaurant workers had lost jobs, compared to the hospitality sector losing just over 11,000 in the whole of 2019. Despite furlough, grants, and loan schemes, the government’s financial response to coronavirus’ impact on restaurants and pubs has not sufficiently protected their workers. Furlough “cliff edges” have left businesses to make terminal decisions that might have been avoided with more notice, while the exclusion of tronc — an already contested tip-sharing system — from furlough calculations has left many workers on much less than the feted “80 percent” of wages they were promised.

While trade lobby U.K. Hospitality suggests that these figures “convey the current fragility of hospitality but also the sector’s importance to national economic recovery,” the novel coronavirus pandemic has not just immediately cost jobs. It has also deferred the other coming restaurant staffing crisis: Brexit.

Forecast as devastating since 2016, its most deleterious impact has been held in suspended animation by a more pressing existential threat — with restaurants closed or only partially open, and employees either on furlough, in work, or forced out of it because their jobs are so precarious that they no longer “exist,” any attendant staff shortage has been partially masked. As restaurants are able to reopen fully in the coming months, it will come sharply back into focus, as will its inequalities: While casual dining chains whose private equity bubbles came under the pandemic’s pin are able to restructure, close restaurants, and bounce around debts at speed, thus putting people out of work but “surviving,” independents are often left with the choice between staying open for as long as possible, or/before closing.

But it’s already biting: restaurant groups are reporting the impact of staff either returning home to Europe, or seeking jobs with more stability and higher pay; conversations in the U.S. in which chains blame unemployment benefits and not their own poor wages for workers leaving are likely to migrate. For now, restaurant and pub workers that made it to reopening are returning to work under familiar uncertainty.