'We are going to have a massive problem': restaurant industry calls for public health order on staff vaccination

Taj Clayton and Emily Gilmour from Pretzel food store on Chapel St in South Yarra. Restaurant workers are getting ...
Taj Clayton and Emily Gilmour from Pretzel food store on Chapel St in South Yarra. Restaurant workers are getting vaccinated so they can come back to work and feel safe. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Hospitality business owners in Melbourne and Sydney know that reopening is tied to vaccination rates, but many are unsure how this applies to their staff.

"We work in an industry that can't socially distance but we are in the dark," says Rebecca Lines, owner of Sydney bar Tequila Daisy, which will launch when the city reopens.

"We hear a lot about vaccinated customers but not about staff. We are going to have a massive problem on our hands if we open without clear rules."

"We don't have lawyers at our disposal," says Tequila Daisy co-owner Rebecca Lines.
"We don't have lawyers at our disposal," says Tequila Daisy co-owner Rebecca Lines. Photo: Rhett Wyman

Restaurant and Catering Industry Association chief executive Wes Lambert is also seeking clarity.

"Hospitality needs guidelines and direction, including public health orders, that will define the requirements around vaccination," he says. "Vaccination of both customers and staff is the fastest, safest way to get hospitality opened in a Delta environment."

There are no public health orders in Victoria or NSW mandating COVID-19 vaccination for hospitality workers.

"The vast consensus is that it's all positive." Kingsleys venue manager, Ryan Adams with co-worker Teddy Hepworth at the ...
"The vast consensus is that it's all positive." Kingsleys venue manager, Ryan Adams with co-worker Teddy Hepworth at the Woolloomooloo restaurant.  Photo: Louise Kennerley

The only rule that comes close is the requirement from September 20 that authorised workers in Sydney's local government areas of concern have at least one dose or a medical exemption to leave their area to work.

The FairWork Ombudsman steers employers away from mandating vaccination among their employees. "Employers should exercise caution if they're considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory in their workplace and get their own legal advice," it says.

"The government is pushing it onto business," says Rebecca Lines. "Most restaurants aren't equipped to make those decisions. We are not like Telstra [which has announced it is mandating vaccines for frontline staff]. We don't have lawyers at our disposal."

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FairWork encourages a "collaborative approach in the workplace that includes discussing, planning and facilitating COVID-19 vaccinations" and many workplaces are doing just that.

Pretzel owner Brittany Garbutt is aiming for a 98 per cent vaccination rate among her Victorian workforce of 87 staff, all aged under 28, in five quick-service outlets.

"I weigh in quite heavily," says Garbutt. "I've shown them my vaccination, I share my feelings, my thoughts." She will reallocate shifts and even close a store to fit in with vaccination appointments. "I will bend the moon to get it done."

Restaurant and Catering Association chief executive Wes Lambert says the hospitality industry needs government ...
Restaurant and Catering Association chief executive Wes Lambert says the hospitality industry needs government guidelines and direction around staff vaccinaton. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Garbutt is tracking vaccination uptake with a software tool. "If we have outbreaks, we can quickly allocate shifts to vaccinated people and put unvaccinated people in more protected tasks so they are not so customer facing," she says.

Garbutt's legal advice is that she can't make vaccination compulsory but she does see a time when being jabbed will be a boon on a CV.

"I would prefer to employ people who are vaccinated," she says. "It should be valuable, like if someone has a great chef certificate. It shows me that you have others in mind and you're going to be safe at work."

Pretzel employee Emily Gilmour, 18, wouldn't have made the effort to get vaccinated without her boss's encouragement. "I didn't really think about it until she mentioned it to all the Pretzel staff," she says. "It really cut through. Now I'm vaccinated and it feels really good."

Australian Venue Company (AVC) owns pubs and restaurants around the country. A staff survey showed just two per cent of Melbourne staff (from a sample of 531) and one per cent of Sydney staff (from a sample of 77) intend to remain unvaccinated, even if mandated by the government.

"We are pro-vax," says the group's NSW manager Evan Gargaro. "We definitely need a solution and we believe this is it."

As well as a constant flow of pro-vaccination information, last week the company ran a $5000 raffle for double-vaccinated Sydney staff and will soon do the same in Melbourne.

"It's great that they are doing so much and promoting it to the staff," says Ryan Adams, venue manager at AVC's Kingsleys steak and seafood restaurant in Woolloomooloo. "It makes the staff feel a lot safer coming to work. The vast consensus is that it's all positive."

Not every business is on board. "I see it as none of my business what my staff do with their medical choices and their bodies," says Haley Aldred, owner of Bendigo bar El Gordo.

"I don't like people's freedoms being restricted based on their personal choices."

Aldred would be uncomfortable enforcing any government direction to require either staff or customers be vaccinated.

"I have concerns about the way it's being pushed. I think the government has gone about it the wrong way. It's threatening and scary."

James Sinclair is chief executive of Signature Hospitality Group, which owns TGI Fridays and Sporting Globe pubs in Victoria and NSW. He has no doubt that vaccination is the path forward for hospitality staff but is frustrated by flip-flopping messaging on the AstraZeneca vaccine and a lack of access to Pfizer.

"The narrative about AZ was really damaging early on," he says. "We've provided our employees with the current information on both vaccines but younger people still have a strong preference to get Pfizer."

The group is doing all it can to facilitate uptake. "We provide three hours paid leave to get vaccinated, two days extra sick leave if they are unwell afterwards and our human resources department helps them find bookings," he says.

"We have a huge duty of care to provide a safe workplace and will do everything in our power to achieve that."