Thousands of workers wanted in France as hotels and restaurants reopen

The Hotel Regina in Paris on April 26, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (NYTIMES) - For six months, Christophe Thiriet has waited for France's grinding national lockdowns to be lifted so he can reopen his company's restaurants and hotels in a picturesque corner of eastern France and recall the 150 employees who were furloughed months ago.

But when he asked them to return for a reopening in mid-May, he faced an unexpected headache: At least 30 said they wouldn't be coming back, leaving him scrambling to hire new workers just as he needed to swing into action.

"When you close things for so long, people think twice about whether they want to stay," said Thiriet, a co-manager of the Heintz Group, which owns 11 hotels and three restaurants around the riverside city of Metz, near the border with Luxembourg.

Restaurants and hotels across the country are facing the same problem. After months on furlough, workers in droves are deciding not to return to jobs in the hospitality industry. It's a particular concern in France, which typically tops the list of the world's most visited countries.

A shortfall of perhaps as many as 100,000 restaurant and hotel workers, according to the industry's biggest trade groups, is especially troubling because hundreds of thousands of people are looking for work after France's worst recession in decades. Employers say it is becoming harder to lure job seekers to an industry whose future is more or less tethered to the vagaries of the coronavirus and the uncertainty of vaccine campaigns.

Help-wanted signs hang in restaurant and hotel windows around the country.

The missing manpower conundrum has emerged as thousands of hotels and restaurants that survived the crisis pivot toward trying to make up for an 80 per cent plunge in business since last spring. The Covid-19 lockdowns have cost France's tourism industry, a cornerstone of the economy, more than 60 billion euros (S$96.7 billion) in lost revenue since last year.

"We know we're going to have customers again this summer - that's not the problem," said Yann France, the owner of La Flambée, a restaurant in the popular northern seaside city of Deauville. "The concern is that we won't have an adequate workforce at a time when we need to make up for a huge loss in sales." Some say the problem may not be so stark, since international visitors aren't yet flocking back to France, and job seekers, including students who need work to help make ends meet, could eventually fill any shortfall.

But others say the precariousness of the businesses is the broader question.

"The bigger issue is the uncertainty over the industry's future," said Thierry Gregoire, the owner of NT Hotel Gallery group, which owns five hotels and three restaurants around Toulouse. "Will things stay open, or could there be another shutdown because of a new virus?" For those already facing signs of a labor squeeze, it's now clear that a generous state-subsidized furlough scheme intended to help French employers keep staff on standby has also created unexpected downsides. In the half year in which hospitality employees received 85 per cent of their salaries to stay home, many have had ample time to reevaluate their futures.

"Many people are deciding they have other things to do than continue in a profession where nothing has been happening," said Thiriet, who is also a representative of France's biggest hospitality trade organization, UMIH, the Union of Hospitality Trades and Industries.

He added that thousands of other employers in the organization have reported the same recruiting difficulties.

Passersby are reflected in the window of a shuttered restaurant in Metz, France, on April 27, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Restaurant and cafe owners are especially wary of losing skilled and seasonal staff as they gear up to handle an expected surge of patrons when those with open-air terraces are allowed to reopen May 19, the first date in a graduated reopening announced this past week by President Emmanuel Macron.

The government will evaluate every 15 days whether gradual reopenings in hospitality, culture, sports and related activities can continue or must be halted, depending on the trajectory of the virus.

As in New York, London and other major cities where government restrictions were lifted, fed up consumers in France are ready to splurge pent-up savings on gastronomic delights and the joie de vivre denied to them for many months.

France's tourism professionals are also hoping that the imminent lifting of a yearlong ban on all but the most essential travel from the United States to the European Union, just in time for summer vacation, will draw back free-spending Americans after a long absence.

The job fairs that employers typically use to fill vacancies have been put off because of a nationwide curfew and restrictions on large gatherings, making it harder to attract candidates in a sector that was already facing a labor squeeze before the pandemic.

France, the owner of La Flambée, is trying to recruit a butler, a kitchen assistant and a chef de partie after some employees said they weren't returning to work - so far to no avail.

"The lack of manpower is stunning," he said.

Restaurants in the Calvados region, where La Flambée is, need to fill 3,000 to 4,000 full-time and seasonal jobs to be ready for an expected surge in customers, he added.

Government subsidies have been vital to keeping businesses afloat. But they don't necessarily guarantee that employers can protect the most skilled workers.

Mr Christophe Thiriet, a co-manager of the Heintz Group, in the restaurant at the Hotel Mercure Metz Centre, on April 27, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Craig Carlson, the owner of Breakfast in America, a popular pancake restaurant in Paris, said the furlough schemes, while essential to the restaurant's survival, had paradoxically put some of his higher-paid workers at a disadvantage.

While waitstaff earning France's monthly minimum wage of 1,539 euros (S$2479) get their full pretax salary under the furlough program, cooks and managers, who earn more, took about a 15 per cent pay cut to stay home until the pancake house reopens.

For one manager, a single father with two children, the reduced pay means "he's really struggling," Carlson said.

At Thiriet's restaurants and hotels in Metz, the 30 unexpected job vacancies are not yet debilitating, since restaurant reopenings will come in stages and tourism and bookings at hotels are not likely to return to pre-pandemic levels quickly.

Still, he said, it's a challenge to replace employees with years and even decades of experience who decided during the pandemic that the work was no longer what they wanted.

"At first people said this is nice, one or two months relaxing at home," Thiriet said. "Now, there's a lack of long-term visibility about this industry, and some people are not so sure they want to be in it."

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