Joe Beeston, counsel in the employment team at legal firm Forsters, outlines some of the issues faced by hotel HR teams with some advice on how best to manage these.
It has undoubtedly been a turbulent couple of years for the hotel sector and although the UK is beginning to cautiously return to some form of normality (albeit in a post-Brexit world whilst learning to live with COVID-19), it seems that we can still expect to see numerous HR and people issues arising over the coming weeks and months.
UK Hospitality has estimated that there have been over 350,000 job losses in the hotel sector during the pandemic and with the government’s furlough scheme coming to an end in September 2021, this number is likely to rise. Worryingly, the most affected are those under 35 years old.
We expect that many hotel operators will start to ramp up recruitment (if they have not already done so) in the coming months, especially as travel restrictions to the UK ease. However, anecdotally, many operators are unlikely to hire staff at numbers seen before the pandemic (indeed, they may struggle even if they wanted to), with some in the industry suggesting that they will operate at 20% less capacity. This might possibly lead to a demand for better terms (including increased salaries) from staff.
Recruitment in the sector will no doubt be hampered by the new immigration system which, following the end of the Brexit transition period, came into force in January 2021. Although the new system will make it easier for employers in certain sectors to sponsor non-UK nationals to work in the UK, the hotel sector is unlikely to be one of them. With a focus on “skilled workers”, many roles within the hotel industry will simply not satisfy the criteria. Unable to rely on European workers as they have typically done in the past, hotels are going to find it much harder to fill certain roles.
Whilst there are suggestions of active lobbying to encourage the government to change the system and thereby make it easier for those in the hotel sector to recruit non-UK nationals, we suspect, based on government announcements, that no changes will be made anytime soon.
Safe return to work
Hotels, like all employers, are under a duty to keep staff safe at work. Most hotel staff cannot work from home, so operators should continue to follow any government guidance and do what they can to keep the workplace safe. The safeguards which we have become accustomed to in recent months, such as hand sanitiser, masks, regular cleaning, etc., are obvious good practices to retain.
Some staff will be worried about their health and safety, especially as hotels start to become busier. It is important that employers engage with staff and are seen to be taking staff safety seriously. In our experience, communication is key to alleviating concerns.
Certain staff might refuse to attend work, in particular if infection rates increase. Unfortunately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to dealing with such refusals. If an employee has genuine concerns (such as an underlying health condition), employers should exercise caution before taking any disciplinary action. Generally, employers should set out their expectations clearly and think about updating their sickness and absence policies. This will help them take appropriate action in applicable situations and provide advance notice to staff of their employer’s likely response.
Failure to deal with such matters reasonably could expose operators to potential employment and health and safety claims. COVID-19 related claims are just starting to make their way through the Employment Tribunal system and we expect to see a large number of these over the next few months. Unhelpfully, those claims that have already been heard have highlighted that every case is fact-sensitive and emphasised that COVID-19 related refusals to return to work cannot necessarily all be handled in the same way.
Testing and vaccinations
Hotel operators may ask their staff to be tested for COVID-19 on the basis they are considering the health and safety of other employees and those staying at the hotel. If an employee unreasonably refuses to take a test, their employer could take disciplinary action.
Vaccinations are however, a different matter and it will not generally be possible to insist that staff receive a COVID-19 vaccination, especially if there are health or religious reasons behind their refusal.
If an employer collects health data (such as test results and whether somebody has been vaccinated) they should remember that such data is afforded enhanced protection under data protection laws. Employers should ensure that their data privacy notice confirms that such data is collected and explains how it will be used.
Whilst the NHS track and trace app continues to be operational, employers should consider how they will manage in the event employees (or a team) are told to isolate. It might be appropriate (where possible) to split the workforce into teams which do not work together. Therefore, if one team is affected, the other will be available to cover.
Disclaimer: This article reflects Forsters’ opinion and views as of July 2021 and is a general summary of the legal position in England and Wales. It does not constitute legal advice.