Tom Melville 00:00
Hi, I'm Tom Melville and Welcome to voice of real australia. Each week, we bring you people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. A big dumping of snow at the beginning of winter set the scene for what many are predicting could be New South Wales' biggest ever ski season. Places are booked out, the snow is excellent, and people are paying more than ever for their winter adventure. But there's a catch: no one can find any staff. Bar-tenders, chefs, cleaners, ski instructors -- across the board businesses are finding it impossible to fill vacancies. At the moment, Jindabyne -- the last town before the main NSW snowfields of Thredbo and Perisher -- is quiet due to lockdowns around the country. So instead of being short of staff, business owners are struggling to find work for their employees. But when the lockdown ends, a lot of people will flood back into town. And Jindabyne will be right back where it started. It'd be easy to blame the pandemic for the staff shortage -- and that's certainly part of it -- but Jindabyne is facing a housing crisis years in the making, and locals are concerned it will start to hurt their businesses.
Renae Buechner 01:04
We would need at least another four to five people still to get us comfotable, like okay through the season. That's not including if anyone gets sick that is just to cover the demand.
Wendy Hukins 01:16
I'm exhausted. I'm really at my wit's end now. 15 years ago, yes, I did love it. It was fun. It was you know, the place was vibrant, but every day is, every day is a struggle. And knowing that you don't have enough staff, are the staff you can go into turn up. That's another thing too. You can have the staff do they turn up soon as you get a good ski day. You're gonna disappear. You still got to get through the work, but you don't have a choice. There's not a case of just shutting up shop. I'm sorry. We're back tomorrow. Can't do it. People are relying on you. So yeah, no, I don't know that. I'm exhausted.
Cafe Manager 01:54
The ski industry is getting busier and busier. And so there's more people on the hill. The resorts need more staff accommodation and what's going on. Up in Thredbo and Perisher before back from that is land solely on to Jindabyne. And the housing sector just can't handle it. So it'll be an issue again next year. Jindabyne is right on the banks of Lake Jindabyne.
Tom Melville 02:18
Jindabyne is right on the banks of Lake Jindabyne. It's a man made lake -- there's a dam a couple of Ks out of town, part of the snowy hydro scheme. The original town is actually now underwater -- it was flooded in the 60s and the inhabitants moved slightly higher up the Snowy River Valley. A quick wander through town gives you a sense of what's going on. Every shop needs staff -- most need a lot. Each business I visit tells me they're around half a dozen people short.
Wendy Hukins 02:44
It's crazy to be this exhausted and the season's just started.
Tom Melville 02:48
That's Wendy Hukins, she runs a cleaning service in town catering to holiday rentals and Airbnbs. She's desperate for staff. She says she'll take anyone.
Wendy Hukins 02:56
I'll give every single person that applies a job is where we're at. Someone said, they've got to have a heartbeat. I said they don't even need that. I'll carry a defib if that's what it takes just to give them a heartbeat. That's how desperate, we will make it work. I'll give anyone, I'll give them a job.
Tom Melville 03:15
A few years ago Wendy had 40 employees -- it was a busy, thriving business catering to the tens of thousands of tourist beds in this town. Concerned about Covid transmission last season, she didn't want to do back to back cleans -- where tenants were out and in on the same day.
Wendy Hukins 03:30
So I lost a lot of my business overnight. But that forced me to restructure and look at 12 month business which has been great. So I've downsized in a way. It minimises those peaks and troughs in work so that you've got more steady year round. But you're still gotta have the staff and we've battled all summer with staff and it's just got so much worse this winter.
Tom Melville 03:55
She's conscious that cleaning is not the most glamorous job -- but it is a job, four days a week, which would give working holiday makers ample opportunity to ski throughout the season. She used to never struggle to find staff.
Wendy Hukins 04:08
Cleanings always been at the bottom of the pile. Very few people actually want to clean they can't get jobs as, the nice jobs, customer service, coffee, baristas, waiters, waitresses. Someone that doesn't need any experience, they become a cleaner. But all the really fun jobs aren't getting filled, so I've got no hope of that filtering of cleaners to come through.
Tom Melville 04:35
Jindabyne's chamber of commerce reckons the winter season requires about 5,000 extra staff. That includes all the ski-instructors, chairlift operators, chefs, cooks and housekeepers. Businesses in the area -- including the resorts -- are still looking for about 1,000. Which is why Wendy is finding it so tough.
Tom Melville 04:52
Are you thinking about leaving?
Wendy Hukins 04:54
Oh my business is for sale. Absolutely. Yep. I'm even thinkign of walking away, I'm just tired. And yet, as I said, the workload that we've got isn't sustainable. So let's just hope next week brings fresh staff, fresh inquiries.
Renae Buechner 05:17
Renee, I'm from Peak Performance cafe in Jindabyne. And I'm one of the many business owners down the region that is really struggling for staff.
Tom Melville 05:25
Peak Performance cafe is bustling when I stop in for a chat. Renae Buechner, being understaffed, is run off her feet and can't sit down for an interview. She's making coffee and serving customers while we talk.
Renae Buechner 05:37
It's just that with all these Airbnb's popping up everywhere. There's a lot of staff shortages, because there's nowhere for those people to stay. So we've lost quite a few staff to regularly go up the hill. But we've also not getting the influx of tourists that are looking for work in Australia as well. So even the internationals that normally come over to do cafe work that then you know, on their days and then go up the hill, they can't get into the country, because you know, it's not worth it for them either. So we're really struggling with that as well.
Tom Melville 06:11
When I was there Jindabyne and the snowfields had just had what might have been their biggest ever opening weekend. The town had been carpeted in snow for days and everyone was upbeat.
Renae Buechner 06:22
It was great. We love to have people come to the region. And we really want to encourage people to come here. We just asked that when they do come they'll be patient with us because we are doing our absolute very best to accommodate everyone.
Tom Melville 06:34
I mean, I've also heard stories of business owners, offering, you know, accommodation probably subsidised or whatever. Are you able to do that sort of thing?
Renae Buechner 06:43
Unfortunately, we're not in a position to do that. If I had a spare unit booked somewhere. Absolutely. But no.
Tom Melville 06:49
A lot of the other smaller cafes and things I'm sure in a similar boat.
Renae Buechner 06:53
Yeah, absolutely. They really are. So you know, I've heard of a couple of local ones employing chefs as an apprentice. But again, our cafes not in a position to do that either.
Tom Melville 07:04
So like an apprentice chef on like a full time wage?
Renae Buechner 07:09
Yeah. So that's the only way that they can get staff is to, you know, put an apprentice on.
Tom Melville 07:14
Another local cafe worker, who didn't want to be named, has watched as salaries for seasonal workers have just gone up and up and up this year.
Cafe Manager 07:22
The money being thrown around for staff is more than it's ever been before. You know, I'm hearing $50 an hour for ski technicians. And we're happy to offer baristas $30 plus. If we can get a good one, which you know, you'd never would have got that in the seasons gone by. There's literally if you look at the job ads on the Jindabyne job guide, businesses aren't just looking for a chef or one of this. They're looking for Front of House staff. They're looking for chefs they're looking for, yeah, baristas basically, the whole team. So But literally, you can't, they can't fill those positions. So it's basically money talks at the moments if you can offer the dollars, you know, you can grab the staff,
Tom Melville 08:04
He had a great long-weekend, he nodded at the barista standing behind the counter who'd worked it with him as if they were bonded by some shared trauma. They made it through. But:
Cafe Manager 08:13
Big as in a lot of people through the door and then big because I didn't have enough staff to Yeah, to cater for producing enough product to put in the window. And so it meant the guys that I have full time they've done some long hours. So in that side of things we got through but it was just three days. So when we what scares me is the school holiday period, you know, where it's gonna be just the same that we've just been through, but for 20 days straight, that's a very fairly scary thought to be honest,
Tom Melville 08:43
Renae is aware that it's probably not that long before quality starts to dip.
Renae Buechner 08:47
When it gets busy things get missed, or it gets you know, you just rush out you don't get a chance to always check what goes out and, or get to everyone to make sure that you know the quality is up to their standards. And that's hard as well because then you also can't then ask them to leave a review or if they do leave a review you've got no control over it because you're just trying to pump everything out to meet the demand
Tom Melville 09:15
For Wendy, who built her business up from nothing, that fact is weighing heavily on her mind.
Wendy Hukins 09:20
I don't want to be a part of that. I've spent years building up my business based on quality and consistency. And I think that's possibly what's exhausting me and hurting me at the moment is it worries me that I can't deliver and I won't be able to deliver. You know I can't. To go from 40 staff two years ago to six couple of school kids and my partner you know I'm possibly looking at maybe 10-12 tops it's a huge downsize and that's just to safeguard my business and my and my name and my quality but I don't have 6 staff I still don't have
Patricia Borthwick-Higgs 10:05
My name is Patricia and I'm one of the owners of the Brumby Bar and Grill in Jindabyne
Tom Melville 10:10
When I meet Patricia Borthwick-Higgs, the Brumby is just getting set up for the evening. The bar has thick wood panelled walls and an open kitchen -- they're looking forward to a busy evening.
Patricia Borthwick-Higgs 10:19
Rostering is a nightmare because we're relying on people that is their second job, and a lot of school kids we have working for us so they have other commitments and stuff as well. So just making a roster work around everyone is pretty hard.
Tom Melville 10:36
Patricia is struggling and needs about six more staff before she feels comfortable. She's worried about the dip in quality -- particularly when you take into account that dinner at the Brumby Bar is the last stop for customers -- who may have been impacted by long lines and delays throughout the day.
Patricia Borthwick-Higgs 10:51
Unfortunately, by the time people get to dinner time, which is our core business, they're grumpy because, because they've had to line up to get on to the mountain, they've had to line up to get their lift tickets, they've had to line up in ski lift lines. This was what happened on the long weekend. And they probably had enough by the time they got down here. But we tried to do the best and cater of for everyone that we could
Oliver Kapetanakos 11:20
I've had to increase the hourly rate. I've had to offer lunches on the day. And probably the biggest thing that I've hit on now is I'm offering a bonus if they stay through the season.
Tom Melville 11:34
That's Oliver Kapetanakos, he owns a cleaning business and hosts tourists on his farm just outside town. He's also head of the Jindabyne chamber of commerce. In order to help attract and retain staff, he's built accommodation for them on his property and he's looking okay for staff this season. But he's worried about what this new status quo is going to do to the region's tourist industry.
Oliver Kapetanakos 11:54
Two things, one is that we're going to resist this for as much as we can, it could impact on the experience. So if we got to start taking shortcuts, for instance, not making beds and just leaving sheets on the beds and the living explanatory note that they will have an impact. It also had an impact on profitability, because I'll be paying a lot more than what I normally pay. And as you know, there's not a huge amount of money in housekeeping. It's a vital service is an essential service. But it's becoming more expensive. Certainly, the cost has gone up this year. And that'll reflect on, you know, the price of accommodation as well.
Tom Melville 12:29
Some businesses in town have done something similar, and have taken out leases for staff accommodation -- but Oliver doesn't see that as a long-term solution.
Oliver Kapetanakos 12:38
This is a systemic problem that is really going to impact on the tourist industry, unless we can solve it. Seasonal staff accommodation is one aspect. But if businesses have to buy a housing stock, then that takes houses, add all the purchase bill. So then when people come down and want to live down here, there are less houses to buy, that drives prices up. You have higher prices, that makes it harder for seasonal workers to find accommodation.
Tom Melville 13:07
Patricia has actually had to limit the number of patrons she serves each night. She's in a pickle: she wants to make sure the customers are looked after to the standard she expects, but she can't work to death the staff she does have:
Patricia Borthwick-Higgs 13:18
Even under the COVID restrictions. We could fit more people in here if we had the capacity to serve them. Yeah, but you just can't know. Like, you can't expect the people in the kitchen to literally work their fingers to the bone every single night and and keep the staff that you've got. You can't upset the ones that are doing the right thing by you have to look after them a little bit.
Tom Melville 13:46
It wasn't always like this. It's never been cheap for staff to live in town for a season, but it's always been doable. There are all sorts of options -- from share houses to bunk beds. This year, the price for staff accommodation is about $250 per week for a bed in a shared room. That's just out of the question for most people, who might be earning only a few hundred dollars more than that. The main point of working the ski season is that you spend most of your time skiing -- that proposition becomes a whole lot less appealing if you have to work a lot more.
Joan Bird 14:16
You wanted a short answer. There isn't one.
Tom Melville 14:19
That's Joan, head of a short term holiday rental business in town. There are a lot of factors contributing to the staff shortage. Joan tells me that Snowy 2.0 -- the massive hydroelectric infrastructure programme rolling out through the region -- means there are a lot of workers who need accommodation year round. But there's also a huge amount of domestic tourism happening right now.
Joan Bird 14:39
So people are going boarders are open, we're not going overseas. We're not going to New Zealand. We're not going to Japan. We're not doing Bali. We're not doing anything. Let's do domestic. And obviously as you've seen the Federal Governmenet has been awesome at promoting domestic tourism.
Tom Melville 15:00
A lot of people own investment houses in Jindabyne -- some of them aren't offering them up for lease this season, preferring to keep them for themselves. On top of that, owners and developers who want to rent out their properties are looking to lucrative holidaymakers. At some point the economics simply changed -- holiday rentals became more profitable than staff rentals.
Joan Bird 15:14
I own property, in Jindabyne, rental property. And three years ago, that dollar flipped for us. And we were actually getting more, better return on a permanent year round lease than we were for 16 week winter lease. And then of course, what happened last year is that everybody was very gun shy. So the winter leases last year were only 12 weeks, they would just legal, residential tenancy leases.
Tom Melville 15:44
There's also the fact that seasonal workers, historically, haven't always been the best tenants. They're kids, in the mountains to have a good time, so when the kids leave:
Joan Bird 15:54
You've probably got to spend $2,000 fixing it up. It's no criticism of them. We've all mean, I turned up here in the mountains of 19. And we totally get it the kids are here to have a great time. What happens though, is because they say some leases are rundown, for the most part. It's older stock, older furniture, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, they kind of go along, and they don't treat it like that, would their own home..
Tom Melville 16:27
So there's a bit going on, and the staff shortage doesn't just come down to a lack of beds -- the most frustrating part for Wendy, who we heard from earlier, is that she's actually offering accommodation, and still can't find staff. When you couple that staff housing shortage with a lack of backpackers coming in from overseas, you get the situation where almost every shop, every cafe, every bar, and every hotel in town is looking for multiple team members to start right away. Oliver Kapetanakos says perhaps a poor work ethic contributes to the problem.
Oliver Kapetanakos 16:57
My theory, and is totally untested, but I think that Australians don't necessarily like doing menial work. That's my view on it. So when you hire people from overseas, they understand that's how they're going to get paid. And they get there and do the job. That's my interpretation.
Tom Melville 17:18
I don't want to get too deep into that opinion, although it is a common one in Jindabyne. I guess that's the difference between young people blowing in for the ski season and blowing out again and the people who built businesses in town -- a commitment to community. Suffice to say many are extremely keen for the international borders to open up. But again, that's only part of the problem. Last year it was a bit of a struggle to find staff, but nothing on this year. Whenever the foreign backpackers do arrive, they'll have nowhere to stay. There are changes coming, though. Big ones. As part of the Snowy Mountains Special Activation Precinct, Jindy is about to see a lot of investment. Ideally, Oliver wants there to be zoning changes -- like in Queenstown in New Zealand -- where there are parcels set aside for staff accommodation. Without that, he's sure property developers will do whatever makes them the most money -- which isn't staff housing. But that's not included in the SAP plan.
Oliver Kapetanakos 18:15
No, I've been told by the SAP, by the planner, that their answer to the seasonal in the social housing is more land availability. But land availability, the government does not own the land, they'll just zone it. So the developers who will buy that zoned land and find a use for it. Of course, we'll try to do the best I can to maximize the return on investment. And that's not seasonal housing. That's not social housing.
Tom Melville 18:43
Staff shortages and lack of accommodation are ongoing issues. But there's another broad threat to tourism businesses: the pandemic. Sydney's recent lockdown was just in time for the school holidays. The city is a really important customer base for the ski slopes. So after scrambling to get the staff numbers, Oliver faces this compounding problem.
Oliver Kapetanakos 19:07
I was a little bit concerned for the really busy periods. And I was going to call in favours. So literally I was going to call the friends who live in Sydney and say guys, come on down for the weekend. I'll pay your ski lifts on Saturday, you just got to work for me on a Friday on a Sunday. Now, I've got the complete opposite. I've got a lot of cancellations. And I've got too many staff on so I employ three full time people I've got five casuals that I've promised work if you like I've attracted them based on the amount of hours and the salary that I was going to pay them and I've got two of them living with me. But if the lockdown ends on the ninth, that's not gonna happen. I got to make a phone call to my mates and say come on the 11th.
Tom Melville 19:54
Oliver thinks the looming threat of the snap lockdowns is going to make business extremely tough. He doesn't know how Jindabyne is going to navigate COVID-normal.
Oliver Kapetanakos 20:03
If we're going to be working on the new way of working the new normal, I don't think we've yet developed the processes to work in that fashion, you know, terms and conditions is a very good one. Whenever you enter a contract for combination, you sign an agreement, we're basically throwing some of those agreements out the window, we're gonna have to to survive. Because in the past, we had very strict policies on cancellation. And now they're gonna have to be all related to COVID. If you get a lockdown, you get so much back. If I get a lockdown, you get so much back. I don't know. So from a business perspective it's really unusual.
Tom Melville 20:42
In the meantime, operators and business owners are taking this season day by day. Patricia isn't at that stage yet, but she thinks that businesses are going to have to shut just to give staff a rest.
Patricia Borthwick-Higgs 20:53
Yeah, I think definitely, people will probably shut one or two nights a week where there hadn't in the past, because it would just make it easier. It'll be much easier to say no one's working tonight, and then have the people that you do have working work for the rest of the week. So yeah, shuting will definitely be a thing, which isn't great in a tourist town, because you want to be open seven days a week. It's not good. And it makes people upset if they're trying to get dinner, and they can't get it. So it's not good, from a tourist point of view, or everywhere and in Jindabyne is shut, and we did have comments like that over summer, oh there's nowhere to go everything's shut. For tourists is not great. And for people that have businesses here, it cuts out like 1000s and 1000s of dollars a day.
Tom Melville 21:41
And Wendy Hukins is increasingly uneasy about what's to come.
Wendy Hukins 21:45
Prices have just gone through the roof, accommodation, skiing, everything is just hugely expensive, but more so than ever before. It's about supply and demand, which is great and the tourism, business supply and demand. But there's all the services that go with that supply and demand of they're not there to support it. It could be one really ugly crash. It's a trainwreck about to happen.
Tom Melville 22:12
Wendy Hukins there, one of many business owners in Jindabyne who has felt the compounding effects of staff shortages and snap lockdowns. In the long term they are struggling for staff, But what do they do if their customers can't actually travel? The uncertainty of pandemic restrictions continues to affect all tourist and hospitality businesses greatly. Have a thought for those businesses whose peak trade is 12 weeks, 16 if they're lucky.
Tom Melville 22:51
That's it for this episode of Voice of Real Australia. Thanks for listening. We want to hear from you. Please take part in our listener survey. The link is in our show notes. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast please tell your friends and give us a five-star rating on Apple Podcasts. It really helps. If you'd like to share your story, email voice at aust community media dot com dot a-u... that's voice at aust "a-u-s-t" community media dot com dot a-u. Our Facebook page is Facebook dot com slash voice of real Australia. Follow me on Twitter @-Tom-Melville-1-2-4 Voice of Real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald. It's produced by Laura Corrigan and me, your host, Tom Melville. Our editors are Gayle Tomlinson and Chad Watson. This is an ACM podcast.