Jan 12 (Bloomberg) – Australia was already facing a record shortfall of workers before spiraling omicron infections triggered the widespread absenteeism that is causing the country more acute pain from the variant than its global peers.
Official data Wednesday showed job vacancies climbed to a record, up 18.5% to almost 400,000 in the three months through November. With the virus now raging, a key industry body is warning that firms in food and logistics are reporting 10%-50% of their workers are sick or in isolation, leaving supermarket shelves empty.
The result is a double-blow to already-groaning supply chains Down Under and is forcing supermarkets to impose purchase limits on products including meat, painkillers and toilet paper. While the staff crunch is set to slow a recovery in the $1.5 trillion economy, it could prove a boon to workers as it provides them with additional leverage to seek pay increases.
Australia’s central bank has been trying to spur pay gains in order to rekindle inflation as a prelude to tightening policy. Interest rates are currently at a record low and the bank holds its first meeting for the year on Feb. 1, when it’s due to decide on the future of a bond-buying program.
“For the Reserve Bank, job creation of this nature would normally be a sign that rates should rise,” said Callam Pickering, an economist at global jobs website Indeed Inc. “However, given the uncertainty around omicron, and future variants, a more cautious approach will surely be applied.”
So dire is the labor situation that the government held crisis talks with industry groups overnight and will discuss relaxing isolation requirements for workers at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, local media reported.
The Cabinet meeting “must agree to workable, consistent rules on Covid testing, isolation and return to work that are cognizant of widespread shortages, the huge stresses on our supply chains and the growing number of critical workers out of action,” Innes Willox, head of national employer association Ai Group, said Wednesday.
Australia reported 98,538 Covid-19 cases on Wednesday compared with less than 2,000 daily infections in early December.
KFC says it is cutting items on its menus across Australia due to Covid-19 driven staff shortages at its suppliers. Inghams Group Ltd too flagged lower chicken production due to a lack of workers while there are also shortages of beer and wooden pallets to transport stock.
The country’s biggest supermarket operator, Woolworths Group, said last week that more than 20% of employees at its distribution centers are off work because of Covid-19. In the stores, the virus has put at least 10% of staff out of action, Woolworths said.
Australia isn’t alone in confronting this issue. With the omicron wave rapidly spreading across the U.S., the economic recovery there is also facing a threat from people calling in sick.
“It is probably getting more attention in Australia because we haven’t had these types of numbers of infections, where many other places have, and the whole supply chain thing that has been a feature for much of the last couple of years is more evident now in Australia,” said Su-Lin Ong at Royal Bank of Canada.