Greece is open to welcome tourists back to the country once again after a punishing tourism year — but a shortage of waiters is the latest challenge to its catering industry.
“I have been in business for 18 years. Normally I am turning people away who are looking for jobs. This year, I told everyone I know that I need staff and if they know of anyone to call me,” said the owner of a Mykonos waterfront all-day café in an interview with Greek Reporter.
Although tourists are beginning to fill the country again, there is a shortage of waiters in Greece to serve those visitors.
Before the pandemic there was no short supply — far from it. In fact, most larger restaurants and business had staff on stand-by to fill in when a waiter had a scheduled day off or fell ill.
Today’s reality has taverna and restaurant owners out there on the floor taking orders and busing tables themselves.
Can Restaurants Survive with Waiter Shortage?
Before the pandemic hit Greece and Mykonos, the catering industry was considered one of the most thriving industries across the globe. However, with Covid-19 restrictions, life for those with restaurants, cafes or bars has become ever more difficult. Many are questioning their future in catering altogether.
A quick review of the online platforms for job searches in Greece bears witness to 30 to 40 listings posted daily in the catering industry. Some are for the mainland and Athens; many are for the islands.
Waiters earn the basic salary of about $700 a month with the benefits of being enrolled in the country’s IKA or social security system. This offers them medical coverage in public hospitals. Average salaries have never been lucrative for wait staff. But waiters also receive tips, usually divided at the end of a shift to all of the service staff.
Tipping service staff in Greece has no set rule, as in the States of 20 to 25 percent. It can be as meager as the change left over when the bill is $19.50 and they are handed a $20 note. It also can range from 10 to 25 percent, depending upon the country a traveler is from. And as tip policies are based on a percentage of the final bill, waiters working at up market establishments are making more than a neighborhood taverna.
In a country that was in a deep financial crisis just a decade ago with jobless rates hitting unprecedented numbers, why is it so hard to find wait staff? After all, the job does not require a high amount of training, a formal education or an elaborate set of skills.
Stay Home, Collect $6,000 in Greece
“Two things have made it challenging for me to get new hires this season,” a beach taverna manager in Mykonos told Greek Reporter. “People are actually scared to come back to work, especially the 30-year-old and overs, because they still haven’t been vaccinated. They don’t want to get the coronavirus,” he added.
The other factor is government supplements. He stated that staff who worked for the establishment in 2019 received almost $6,000 in government supplements and unemployment benefits for the period July 2020 to March 2021.
“They received $6,000 to not work and stay at home last year,” the manager explains to Greek Reporter. “In an unpredictable season of businesses facing fines for not being compliant with safety protocols for Covid-19, as well as the fear of local lockdowns or another lockdown, they are just not motivated to return to work,” he adds.
Last year, the Greek government offered income supplements to those who had been employed in the hospitality industry in 2019 but were not rehired by their employer or the establishment did not open. These individuals received a payment of about $600 from June through to October. They also received their IKA (social security) credits as if they had worked. And in the autumn, they were eligible for unemployment benefits to paid through the coming winter.
Former Waiters Employed in Supermarkets or Delivery Jobs
Getting paid to stay home is just one of the factors that accounts for the waiter shortage. After more than a year of lockdowns in Greece, with intervals of open operations guided by strict restrictions, many younger waiters have turned to other lines of work, such as couriers or in supermarkets.
Supermarket staff and delivery personnel have been categorized as “frontline” workers through the pandemic. There seems to be a demand for these positions that will remain, even if there are more lockdowns.
Fear of being unemployed yet again is holding back many potential employees in the catering industry. If there is a fourth wave of the coronavirus, another lockdown in the fall and additional restaurant restrictions will shutter catering businesses once again.
Dimitri, a 40-year-old veteran of restaurants and bars in Mykonos explains to Greek Reporter, “I have no motivation to return if I may only work for two or three months. The financial benefits of government supplements and unemployment will give me the same income without stepping outside my door.”
A “culture of benefits” has developed after a year of state support in catering and tourism, added one industry entrepreneur. Employees from 2019 are reluctant to return to work. They can simply make more money by staying at home.
Owners Fear Quality of Service will Plummet
“Forget experienced staff. I can’t even find people to work with no bar or cafe experience,” one hotelier in Mykonos stated. “I am concerned about sustainability for my business. Without experienced staff, I am going to have to watch the new hires like a hawk. My guests expect high quality service.
“How am I going to guarantee that for my guests with staff who may never have been employed in catering before?” she asked.
Most experienced waiters, and other specialists in the catering industry such as chefs, have already received lucrative offers for a few months to work seasonally, in July and August. These are from islands that will be guaranteed high traffic compared to the rest of the country. As a result, they are not committing to year-round establishments as they fear will close again in September.