Seasonal workers in Austria: What’s the situation for winter 2021?

Cable cars and skiers in Austria
Tens of thousands of staff keep Austria's ski resorts, hotels and restaurants running smoothly. Photo: Daniel Frank/Unsplash
The Austrian Chamber of Commerce told The Local that the tourism industry is short of around 20,000 workers ahead of the winter season. We spoke to experts to find out what's caused the problem and what the possible solutions are.

Who can move to Austria for seasonal work?

Citizens of an EU/EEA country are allowed to move to Austria to live and work under EU freedom of movement.

For people living outside the bloc, there is a requirement to apply for a seasonal work permit.

This means the employment needs to meet certain criteria for wages and accommodation, they must be able to prove no qualified Austrian or EU worker was available (for example, by showing that the job was advertised within Austria and the EU without finding a suitable applicant) and crucially, there must be a slot available under the Austrian quota for seasonal workers, which varies between sector and region.

In the tourism industry, the national quota is 1,263, and although there is some leeway, this cannot be exceeded by more than 20 percent.

That’s despite the significant contributions made to the Austrian economy by foreign workers.

Thomas Geiger of the Tyrol Chamber of Commerce told The Local that pre-pandemic, Tyrol employed up to 60,000 employees in the hotel and hospitality business at peak times, 40,000 of whom are considered as “purely seasonal workers”.

What are the Covid restrictions in place?

Restrictions apply both to staff and customers at ski resorts, hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses.

For example, in so-called night gastronomy — a term used in Austria to cover clubs, bars and late-night dining — workers need to have proof of 3G or 2.5G, meaning vaccination, recovery, or a negative PCR test, depending on where they are in the country.

But Austria’s 3G system only recognises vaccines which were approved for use by the EU. That’s a problem for some of the countries which typically provide a lot of seasonal workers. For example, in neighbouring Hungary, the Russian vaccine Sputnik V was widely used, but this is not yet recognised in Austria.

Workers who received a non-recognised vaccine would therefore need to take tests repeatedly, and risk needing to quarantine if they test positive during their stay.

What’s the impact?

Right now, it’s impossible to say exactly how many workers the tourism industry will be short of, but estimates are in the thousands. A representative from the tourism department of the Chamber of Commerce told The Local that the industry was short by around 20,000 workers.

“This phenomenon affects almost all industries and countries. But especially tourism, [because the industry] already grew faster than the number of available workers before Corona. This problem was exacerbated because many employees migrated to other industries during the corona lockdown phases and apprentices could not be trained,” the spokesperson said.

The Tyrol regional chamber of commerce has requested that the quota for seasonal workers from outside the EU be increased tenfold, from just under 300 to 3,000.

“At present there are still about 7,500 vacancies [in the hospitality industry], about 5,000 specialists and 2,500 auxiliary workers,” said Geiger. “At the start of the season, many of these positions will still be unoccupied and some companies will have to restrict their offering. Closed hotel restaurants or switching from a half-board to breakfast-only offer are just some of the examples we are already aware of.”

The country is unevenly affected; ski resorts, which are only open for part of the year, are far more likely to rely on seasonal workers than tourism businesses in urban areas.

A press spokesperson for a business representing 30 hotels across Austria told The Local they were not affected by the lack of seasonal workers since their hotels were all in cities. Although foreign workers made up a large proportion of their workforce, the spokesperson said that offering longer contracts meant they were not seeing the same issues in recruitment, though they acknowledged that in a growing sector it was always a challenge to hire qualified workers.

What happens now?

The Chamber of Commerce told us that “negotiations are ongoing” regarding solutions such as an increased quota or a different type of permit for tourism professionals.

Workers in the hospitality sector already have access to free regular PCR tests through work as part of a nationwide initiative called Safe Hospitality which was extended in the government’s recently announced plans for the winter tourism season.

It will also be possible for seasonal workers to take an antibody test, which is currently valid as 3G proof for 90 days after a result showing antibodies against Covid-19.

Another option is that workers who received a vaccine without EMA approval could get a booster of an approved vaccine in order to access Austria’s Green Pass. The Vorarlberg region is preparing doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to be offered as an option to seasonal workers, as the ORF broadcaster reported on Wednesday, because this is recognised as offering protection after only one dose.

However, this then raises the question of whether the mixed vaccination would cause issues for the workers when they return home, depending on how any Covid pass system in their home country works.

Additional measures suggested by Thomas Geiger of the Tyrol Chamber of Commerce included tax benefits for seasonal work so that these jobs can be made more attractive for employees, and an increased possibility to hire workers from outside the EU where staff cannot be found within Austria and the EU.


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