Careers in the time of COVID-19

Video credit: dream_one / Adobe Stock

Video credit: dream_one / Adobe Stock

More than a year into the pandemic, UQ experts check in on the state of the employment sector.

The coronavirus pandemic has had an immeasurable impact on the lives of people around the world. We've had to adapt to a 'new normal', adjusting the way we socialise, live and work.

After parts of Australia first went into lockdown in March 2020, some workplaces have continued to embrace virtual meetings and work-from-home arrangements. Meanwhile, the hospitality and tourism industries are just some of many fields facing deep uncertainty.

What is the way forward for the ailing hospitality and tourism industries? How can we manage the boundaries between work and life while online? And how has working from home changed the nature of modern work?

Contact asked experts from UQ's research and alumni community to weigh in on the ways the pandemic has impacted jobs, and what these changes mean for the way we work during this unpredictable time.

Male worker holding group webcam conference with colleagues on modern laptop at home.

Image: Valerii / Adobe Stock

Image: Valerii / Adobe Stock

Associate Professor Richard Robinson

AQIRF Principal Research Fellow
School of Business
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

An image of Associate Professor Richard Robinson

In the hospitality industry, the impacts of COVID-19 have rippled through in a number of waves. The March 2020 twin policy responses of travel bans and lockdowns crippled both international and domestic demand. Business closed and jobs were lost. The impacts on employment were brutal – hospitality was statistically the hardest-hit industry. Over 60 per cent of hospitality workers lost their jobs.

The Australian Government introduced various stimuli and welfare safety nets in response to the pandemic’s economic impacts. However, JobKeeper was not universally accessible, with only permanent employees with 12 months’ tenure eligible. As contingent (and migrant) labour is the norm in hospitality (79 per cent pre-COVID-19), JobKeeper was ultimately claimed by barely 50 per cent of the remaining workforce.

The JobKeeper incentive ceased in late March 2021, just before the anticipated Easter ‘sugar-hit’. Sudden lockdowns had the double whammy effects of denying hospitality businesses desperately needed revenue and forcing perishable products purchased by these businesses to be consigned to the dumpsters – and workers lost their Easter gigs to boot.

Over the past 12 months, ‘hospos’ have moved on to new employment and the confidence, or value proposition, to come back doesn’t appear compelling enough. Systematic wage theft exposed over the past two years is undoubtedly a contributor.

The industry’s already tarnished image is attracting fewer youth to education and training for the sector’s much-needed jobs pipeline, with program enrolments and completions in decline for over a decade.

In mid-2021, Australia is in the grips of an acute hospitality labour shortage. In May, was listing over 46,000 hospitality vacancies nationally, including 8000 for chefs and 14,000 for restaurant and café managers. The strain on those holding the fort is visceral.

Research shows the wellbeing of hospitality workers has been more deeply affected than that of those in other industries – with more than one-third experiencing a mental health issue in 2020.

COVID-19 has exposed the festering wound that is the hospitality, tourism and services labour market. The pandemic ripped off layers of bandages from decades’ old policy, industry ambivalence and reactivity regarding industry regulation and working conditions.

Consequently, the open wounds of deep and persistent structural issues are being laid bare.

These include:

  • low- and non-accredited market entry for businesses that create consistently more supply than market demand
  • requiring more flexibility and offering less stability to workers
  • A thriving informal economy intersecting with the prematurely heralded accommodation, food service and transport ‘disruptors’
  • Failing to provide workers with broad-based secure and decent work
  • The systemic and deliberate suppression of collectivism and unions thus overly empowering businesses large and small in industrial relations
  • An over-reliance on unsustainable mobile and temporary labour markets
  • Increasingly unaffordable housing for the hospitality industry’s precariously employed low-income earners.

It will take significant courage, creativity and collaborative efforts to effect long overdue structural policy reform and transformations in practice to undo all this hostility towards hospitality – but the safe money a la “Work in Paradise” is one more bandage.

Socially distanced waiter giving takeaway bag to customer at a cafe.

Image: bignai / Adobe Stock

Image: bignai / Adobe Stock

Mr Tyler Riordan

PhD candidate and Research Assistant
Business School and School of Social Science
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

An image of Mr Tyler Riordan

COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns have exacerbated the challenges for precarious migrant workers in Australia. As businesses closed down or let staff go, migrants were some of the first to lose jobs. A 2020 study in NSW found 65 per cent of temporary migrants lost employment, 23 per cent had hours significantly reduced, and 43 per cent were regularly skipping meals.

There are 2.17 million temporary visa holders in Australia. Temporary migrants are unable to access welfare, and new permanent residents now have to wait four years to receive government payments. Temporary migrants on graduate visas, sponsored visas, working holiday-makers and international students were also ineligible for support payments such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Instead, this cohort were able to access their superannuation or “strongly encouraged to return home”.

International travel has not always been possible during the pandemic, and those who want to travel home have been unable. The recent closure of the border to India has highlighted that some communities are more impacted than others.

According to a recent study, the majority of international students were unimpressed with their treatment and have said that they would not recommend Australia as a place to study or for a working holiday.

Temporary migrants are vulnerable to food insecurity and have had to rely on charity and food donations. Due to the nature of their roles and living conditions, migrant workers are also at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.

While gigs such as food delivery offered an alternative for some, there was a lot of competition for paid jobs. Participants in my PhD research have told me that they would come home with $30 after a full day and night trying to compete for orders.

Now, with international borders still closed and unlikely to open until at least 2022, industries such as tourism, hospitality and horticulture are facing staff shortages, which opens up many opportunities.

The Australian Government has relaxed the number of hours that international students can work in industries such as hospitality, care work, and agriculture. States including Queensland and Northern Territory are also offering incentives to attract workers, though the eligibility of temporary visa holders is unclear.

But many of these are still low-paid and low-skilled opportunities, that do not always match the career hopes and goals of an underemployed and highly skilled cohort.

Further, temporary migrants are often the most vulnerable to exploitation and many report unsafe workplaces. Workers in industries like cleaning and food delivery have been seriously injured, or killed, while working.

Many of this cohort are also subject to wage theft, sexual harassment and racism. However, temporary migrants are reluctant to complain and fear repercussions if they come forward.

Migrants in Australia live precarious lives and have been treated poorly during COVID-19. These people face doubt, risk and insecurity with snap lockdowns possible at any moment. Some are fearful they might not see their families again and many feel unwelcome in Australia.

It is time for businesses, governments and the Australian people to start treating visitors better and attempt to undo some of the reputational damage that we have done by inflicting harm on our guests.

Male customer wearing mask in a bar making a contactless payment for drinks during the coronavirus pandemic.

Image: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock

Image: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock

Associate Professor Remi Ayoko

Management Discipline Leader
School of Business
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

An image ofAssociate Professor Remi Ayoko

Now that employees have experienced working from home, they know that they can be productive without necessarily coming to the office.

The pandemic changed the way we do our work while promoting flexible work practices and remote and virtual working. It encouraged the proliferation and use of virtual teams on the back of technology.

Some of these changes are long-term, but it does not mean the death of the traditional office. For example, flexible work practices and virtual working have always existed, but it is now intensified.

We will continue to see tan increase in remote working (including working from home, cafés and across international borders), and flexible work practices moving forward.

While the global pandemic demonstrates that we can work from home –and from anywhere – remotely, it has also revealed more than ever, that humans crave to socialise and communicate with one another.

During the lockdown, workers felt isolated and craved social interactions with their co-workers. This is because it is human nature to want to relate to others, especially co-workers when it pertains to work.

In a study with one of my research students, we found that sitting together in an office with your co-workers does not mean you will collaborate.

While employees were not collaborating with people close to them, they were collaborating virtually with others. As with the pandemic lockdown periods, there will be more frequent use of platforms like Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams to facilitate collaboration going forward.

While the traditional office will not die, its form and configurations will most likely change to overcome this pandemic and prepare workers for future health crises. Future offices will have to be productive, healthy and agile.

In our most recent qualitative study, our preliminary findings showed that:

  • The pandemic revealed the trust issues between employees/employers, with some employers promoting the need for surveillances to monitor those working from home.
  • During the lockdown, employees experienced mental exhaustion that translated to physical exhaustion.
  • Interestingly, employees were relied heavily on their team members for support to minimise the mental exhaustion that they experienced during the pandemic.
Business people wearing face masks during hybrid meeting in an office with one team member signed in on Zoom.

Image: Valerii / Adobe Stock

Image: Valerii / Adobe Stock

Professor John Quiggin

UQ Laureate Fellow
School of Economics
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

An image of Professor John Quiggin

The pandemic has brought death and devastation, along with huge economic costs, to much of the world. But, as with other cataclysmic events like wars and revolutions, it has forced us to try new ways of doing things.

Some, including many forms of social distancing, have been abandoned as soon as it seems safe to do so. Others, such as a more serious attitude to infectious disease, seem likely to persist.

Perhaps the most enduring change will be the acceptance of remote work as a more productive way of doing things. Even as the pandemic recedes, there is little enthusiasm for a return to the old days of crowded open-plan offices and long commutes.

The circumstances of the pandemic created the harshest possible test of remote working. With no more than a few days' notice, information workers of all kinds had to set up home offices and undertake their work there.

For those with children, the burden of home schooling was added on top – again, with no warning or opportunity to prepare.

Yet, for the most part, information work of all kinds went on largely as normal. While supply chains for physical goods experienced disruption, invoices were issued and paid, workers were hired and (to a lesser extent than most expected) fired, and reports were written and published, just as they had been before.

Whatever the efficiency costs of being unable to walk over to colleagues at the next desk or down the corridor, they were largely offset by the fact that we no longer needed to drive into an office to see them. Even more striking was the end of most forms of interstate travel for business. 

It seems likely that the widespread phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’ reflects the fact that organising a meeting with Zoom is much easier than when a meeting required organising a group of people to be in the same place at the same time.

Given the unsatisfactory nature of ‘hybrid’ meetings with some people in a room and others using Zoom, it seems likely that Zoom and similar technology is here to stay.

It remains to be seen how the balance between office and remote work develops over time. While many employers and the owners of CBD businesses are keen for a return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’, it seems more likely that the advantages of remote work will be felt more and more over time.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The University of Queensland.

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