Absentee overload

Article by Danielle Le Messurier courtesy of the West Australian.

An explosion of COVID-19 cases in WA is intensifying staffing woes, directly impacting businesses which continue to bear the brunt of skills shortages.

As cases soared to a record high of 17,000 on Wednesday — well above the original peak prediction of 10,000 — businesses were left grappling with a surge in virus-related absenteeism.

Some are optimistic conditions will improve from here as the case load comes down. However, others are anticipating further disruptions as potential new strains emerge.

Among the latter group is Deloitte WA managing partner Michael McNulty. He said that while the ability of staff to work from home — if well enough — had alleviated the “real worker crunch” at the Perth office, it had been functioning without 3 per cent of its full-time workers since March 14.

Like many businesses, Deloitte is also desperate to fill vacancies and is looking to add another 1400 staff nationally to its workforce of 12,000.

“I think we’re going to see different recurrences and different disruptions for the foreseeable future, and we’re going to have to keep learning how to manage our way through them,” Mr McNulty said.

“It would be nice to say that once we get through this we’ll be done and dusted, but I just don’t think that’s realistic.”

Hospitality boss John Parker described absenteeism at his venues as a “tale of two cities”, saying The Standard and The Royal in the city peaked about a month ago, while Dandelion in Karrinyup Shopping Centre was only hit last week. “It was a perfect storm with Mother’s Day and we lost a third of our staff last weekend due to COVID,” he said.

While noting staffing was “really tough at the moment”, with the business looking to boost its 150-strong workforce by 25 per cent, Mr Parker said he had been able to shuffle staff between venues to ease shortages.

On a positive note, he said city trade had picked up over the past fortnight and The Royal was now back to levels it hadn’t seen since December.

Fellow restaurateur George Kailis agreed there was positive sentiment in the market with people eager to eat out again after almost 2½ years of restrictions and lockdowns.

He said the positivity had helped get the business — which operates a number of venues including The Shorehouse in Swanbourne and Island Market and Canteen in Trigg — through the past two weeks.

“It’s probably the worst it’s been through the whole pandemic at the moment with people getting sick,” Mr Kailis said.

WA’s resources sector has also acutely felt the impacts of absenteeism. Rio Tinto and BHP last month reported labour-related production hits for the March quarter, while Fortescue Metals Group blamed workforce issues and a tight labour market for another cost blowout at Iron Bridge. A Rio Tinto spokesman said there had been an increase in positive COVID-19 cases onsite at a rate broadly consistent with transmission in the WA community.

Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said COVID-related labour constraints, including isolation and absenteeism, together with a tight labour market continued to impact workforce levels.

It would be nice to say that once we get through this we’ll be done and dusted, but I just don’t think that’s realistic.

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