Hotel boss says benefits system needs overhaul as hospitality venues left ‘crying out for staff’

A hotelier has called for the UK’s benefits system to be overhauled as the hospitality sector is ‘crying out for more staff’ at a time when so many people are on benefits. Toby Ashworth, owner of the Nare hotel in Cornwall, believes work needs to be made more attractive than being on employment benefits in a bid to fill the vacancies in the area.

The hospitality sector was hit hard during the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns which forced pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels to shut for several months at a time for two years running. The uncertainty of work in the industry has seen some staff leave their hospitality jobs post-lockdown, having decided it is no longer for them or that they can earn more somewhere else.

Combine that with additional Brexit-related red tape involved in hiring foreign workers who might have worked in the county’s hotels in the past, and the result has been that many businesses in the hospitality industry have struggled to recruit new staff to fill the gaps. This has led many hoteliers to push up wages, with some entry-level jobs in some hotels and restaurants in the area offering £11 an hour and increased benefits.

Mr Ashworth told Cornwall Live it is in the interests of everyone if work is made more attractive than being on employment benefits – including the Chancellor who is now increasing taxes, National Insurance contributions and everything else to recoup his Covid largesses. Mr Ashworth said one way to alleviate the staffing crisis could be by having a work permit system similar to that in Australia set up in the UK to attract the foreign workers the industry has relied on.

But more importantly, he believes the benefits system ought to be reviewed to encourage people to be in work when they are able to work and therefore contribute to society through their taxes rather than being better off not working. “There certainly wasn’t any shortage of jobs in Cornwall last summer,” he said. “St Austell Brewery or the Watergate Bay Hotel and many others had to shut down parts of their business because of a shortage of staff.

“If you’re telling me you couldn’t find a job in Cornwall last year then we have to look at how our system is paying unemployment benefits, because the opportunities to be in work were certainly there.” Mr Ashworth said that like many hotels in the area, the Nare was hit hard by staff shortages even though his staff are paid well, have had seasonal bonuses and were even given two extra weeks of paid holiday last November as a ‘thank you’ for their hard work.

He said that while no redundancies took place at the Nare during the pandemic, about 20% of his staff decided not to return when the hotel reopened after the first lockdown in 2020 and again after the winter lockdown last year. “We certainly were not immune to the staffing crisis,” Mr Ashworth said. “The hospitality sector was at the back of the queue to reopen and when we did, we went from no guests to 100% occupancy in six hours.

“It felt like starting a car in fifth gear up a hill but we did it and our staff have been amazing. They have worked their socks off but God they delivered. I feel that we have an even stronger team for it even after some of the team did not come back after furlough.

“But I look after my staff well. They worked all the way through. There was no dip but I quickly realised that if we were to get through the season – and we did – they would need a break. So I shut the hotel off completely and all the staff enjoyed an additional two weeks’ holiday.

“I also told the guests that I would match any gratuities they might leave for the staff. Someone left a £500 tip on the front desk one day and that got matched which you can imagine went down well with the staff. But that’s only fair because they have all worked so hard.”

Mr Ashworth believes there are jobs and careers to be had in the hospitality industry with some chefs earning £50,000 a year and some entry-level waitresses earning up to £30,000. He said The Nare has also built a purpose-built staff complex for 17 of its employees at Tregony so it gives them somewhere to stay without taking any housing stock away from the local community wanting to get on the property ladder.

“Our biggest challenge was the kitchen,” the hotelier said. “During the pingdemic we wondered if we’d have a kitchen team ready on a Monday because if one of them got Covid the whole kitchen would probably have to close. It’s not like you can shift the receptionist to be the chef. The whole industry was on a knife-edge.”

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