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May 18, 2022

In the Family Way

With skilled employees more valuable than ever, the industry needs to lift its game to support and retain new parents in the workforce.

Words: Cara Devine
Illustrations: Ashley Ronning

Evelyn Liong’s 16-year career has made her a well-respected name in the Australian hospitality industry. She found out she was pregnant with her first child while opening the Melbourne outpost of a Tasmanian whisky distillery and resigned from her position as venue manager a few weeks later. “There wasn't much support from the managing directors, and I felt the stress and intensity of expectation on the Melbourne venue would be detrimental to my health,” she explains. There were challenges to her re-entering the workforce afterwards as well. “Both my partner and I worked nights. To pay for a nanny was almost double my hourly salary; even with a subsidy it wasn't worthwhile,” she says. Becoming a father was hard on her partner, too. “The stress of him being the sole breadwinner impacted us greatly. The lack of sleep in the initial years and guilt of not spending enough time with the family also affected our relationship.” As she says: “Parents on the frontline clock off work only to return to our VIPs at home, who can be more brutal than the paying ones at work.” 

Thankfully, Liong and her incredible palate have not been lost to us entirely; she now works in spirits production, and her eldest is six. Has anything changed in those intervening years? Well, there’s been a pandemic, and the resultant staffing shortage. There is also the ‘healthy hospo’ movement which, while gathering pace for years, came to the fore through lockdowns. Parental rights are not yet part of this advocacy – so far the focus has been more on yoga – but as the movement grows, an increasingly mature and holistic look at hospitality careers seems inevitable. 

When I look at my future I see children, but how to reconcile that with my career – which I love and have spent years building – is unclear.”

David Spargo, founder of Mind and Strength Support (MASS), aims to foster longevity within the industry through providing the tools owners and managers need to support their staff. Has he seen any initiatives geared specifically towards alleviating the challenges of parenthood? “Unfortunately, I haven't. From what I've observed it really comes down to the venue and their management team,” Spargo says. “As we know, for smaller to medium-sized venues, they don't always have policy and procedures to back up their staff.”

I have seen the impact of that firsthand. Years ago, while working at a mediocre all-day restaurant, a co-worker of mine became pregnant. She was a full-time staff member who had been with the company for a few years; she had been promoted to a shift supervisor. Her happiness at the prospect of becoming a mother was marred by stress. She spent much of the last two months of her pregnancy sitting on a milk crate behind the bar resting her swollen ankles while the rest of us, unquestioningly, picked up the slack so she could work (and therefore save) for as long as possible. As far as I’m aware there were never any conversations around flexibility to accommodate her situation, support from the venue, or her coming back to work. There was a feeling that she had made her choice. 

It's a choice that I’ve seen many hospitality professionals make over the years and it's not hard to see why. Long hours, late nights, lack of financial security and physical and emotional stress don’t make it the most welcoming of careers for prospective parents. As a venue manager and a woman in my 30s, I struggle with this, too. When I look at my future I see children, but how to reconcile that with my career – which I love and have spent years building – is unclear. It’s something that people in the industry (of all genders) are grappling with.

In Australia there is government parental leave for primary caregivers paid at the national minimum wage rate for up to 18 weeks, putting us at an advantage over our hospitality brethren in the US. But huge hurdles remain. We still lag severely behind other countries – the Scandinavians, for example, offer extensive paid leave to both parents, as do Japan and some Eastern European countries. Childcare subsidies also exist in Australia but, as Liong pointed out, are rarely enough to make childcare affordable for low wage earners in frontline service. Our government so often highlights hospitality in tourism ads, yet offers barebones support for new parents, never mind thinking about the additional needs of those working in service.

Some venues and management teams do try to accommodate employees. Greg Sanderson is a partner in the Speakeasy group, which has multiple venues across Melbourne and Sydney. Both he and co-director Sven Almenning have kids, and so fostering a ‘family first vibe’ is important to them. He details his experience with a staff member who became pregnant after less than a year with them (and who therefore wasn’t eligible for the 12 months’ unpaid maternity leave enshrined in Australian law). They topped up her government payments and made it clear that an open conversation about coming back to work would be there when she was ready. Sanderson has also considered mentorship roles and implemented other forms of flexible rosters to ensure that Speakeasy doesn’t lose key staff members – in fact, having options for progression and longevity is one of the reasons the business has grown. “There’s been ongoing, individualised scenarios of taking care of people who have taken care of us, without any formalised structure,” he says, understanding that putting energy into retaining staff is invaluable.

“I think that becoming a parent is full of opportunities. We’ve just got to get employers better organised so that we can get more mums and dads back into the workforce in a constructive way that benefits both the industry and their family.”

Bianca Welsh is a co-owner of Tasmanian venues Black Cow Bistro and Stillwater as well as a mother. Her experiences in finding herself responsible for a large staff led her to studying for a degree in behavioural psychology, and she now mentors other hospitality businesses in the mental health space. She quotes an average national staff turnover rate in cafes and restaurants of over 80%, while she and her partners have reduced theirs to under 20%. In terms of supporting parents specifically, she points to creating permanent part-time positions (as opposed to casual) as a way of increasing job security. She also encourages creativity with rosters to work around school hours. As she points out: “We are lacking people who want to work in the industry, and there’s a huge cohort of people to tap into… those who haven’t been back to the workforce yet [after becoming parents]. For them to be able to do a few hours over lunch and still do the school pick-up can alleviate what we are all feeling in the industry, which is just not enough bodies on the ground.” Conversely, she has other staff who only start work once their partner is home from a daytime job. “I just reach out and ask, ‘hey, are you interested in just one shift a week?’ And they jump at it. You can see someone’s spark come back.” Using these skilled workers to fill roster gaps while allowing them a foot back into an industry they enjoy is a win-win in her opinion. “I think that becoming a parent is full of opportunities. We’ve just got to get employers better organised so that we can get more mums and dads back into the workforce in a constructive way that benefits both the industry and their family.”

Creativity is something that Welsh emphasises frequently, and in an industry that prides itself on it, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. After a few years that have seen businesses ‘pivoting’ so hard our collective heads are still spinning, looking at company structures and rosters with fresh eyes seems a small price to pay to retain employees with experience and knowledge. 

Kitty Gardner is an ex-Black Pearl bartender who now lives in Copenhagen. When she found out she was pregnant, she says, “I was pretty nervous about the whole thing because I was asking for a new job that didn’t consist of night-time shifts in a company that only trades in the evening.” But the owner and manager of Lidkoeb, where she works, figured out a solution. Kitty now handles a lot of back-of-house and prep work. “I wouldn’t say my career has derailed, but it's very different. I’ve swapped late nights in dark rooms and loud music to 8 a.m. starts. I’m really happy I still get to work on the creative part of bartending – creating drinks and menu development.”

While cultivating open, family friendly environments is important to some, it is not yet an industry standard. Some larger groups take advantage of their corporate structure to affect positive change. Melbourne’s Sand Hill Road Group offers eight weeks’ paid leave at the employee’s normal rate of pay for primary carers of newborns, and two weeks of the same to secondary carers, part of a raft of imaginative initiatives championed by CEO (and parent) Bianca Dawson to improve work-life balance for employees across their venues. 

Sadly, this is nowhere near the norm. I often take breaks at a pokies franchise pub near my work; I asked one of the staff members if he knew if they had anything in the way of maternity and parental policies. “I doubt it,” he said. “We’re basically all casual – they give us as little as they can get away with.” This scenario, thankfully, is becoming outdated, with even notoriously stingy multinationals recognising that they need to level up to attract staff in the current labour market. But the disparity is frustrating. 

What to do? Spargo suggests easily implementable, practical support from the simple baseline of asking staff what works best for them, to a once a week, take-home family dinner to ease the burden of household cooking. The thorny issue of childcare clearly needs to be tackled – there are some models in the States that we could look to, such as this out-of-hours initiative, or a more community-based approach relying on trusted networks to provide childcare.

Perhaps, though, we need to aim higher than ad hoc attempts. Nursing shares a lot of similarities with the service industry (long hours, shiftwork, physically and emotionally demanding) but, crucially, it is female dominated and heavily unionised. While individual workplace agreements exist, the standard includes 10 weeks’ paid leave from your employer on top of government entitlements, pre-natal leave for birthing and parenting classes, and a legal right to request flexible working conditions upon return.  

The shift in how mental health is viewed within hospitality shows that we are capable of wholesale change when we put our minds to it, but there must be a collective adoption across all levels of the industry. We need to form a standard that applies to everyone – from heads of operations to kitchen hands, from tiny wine bars to industrial kitchens – and which is not entirely reliant on amenable business owners. In pure business terms, keeping productive staff members engaged in the workforce increases efficiency exponentially, but creating a hospitality community made up of a wider range of ages and experiences will strengthen our whole industry. 

When I asked Evelyn Liong if she was happy to be identified in this article, her response was, “The more we talk about it the better.”  As a hospitality worker and aspiring parent, I agree. This is the conversation we need to have so that solutions can be conceived (pun intended).

Maybe then I can have a goddamn baby!

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