A spike in COVID-19 cases is disrupting business activity as workers calling sick further compound staffing challenges faced by employers.

Malta Employers’ Association (MEA) director general Joseph Farrugia told Times of Malta that apart from operational disruption, employers were also concerned about the spread of the virus among workers.

“The current spike in COVID cases is inevitably leading to a surge in sick leave, which is higher than normally experienced during this time of year,” Farrugia said.

“This is causing disruptions in the operation of many companies which, besides dealing with the absence, are also concerned about the spread of the disease among employees and clients.”

There are currently 7,161 known active COVID cases in Malta, the highest since April 17, when the number stood at 7,450. Several others are believed to be also down with the virus after have tested with home kits. 

Farrugia added that some businesses were considering adopting mitigation measures among staff to contain the spread of the disease.

“Some are contemplating reintroducing the wearing of masks at the workplace. The problem is compounded by the fact that some sectors, notably tourism, are also suffering from a serious shortage of employees and this is leading to a downscaling of operations for some of them.”

Sick leave making staff shortages worse

Malta Chamber of SMEs CEO Abigail Mamo said the problem was made worse by a general lack of staff across several sectors.

“A lot of businesses are having staffing issues due to people taking sick leave to recover from COVID,” she said.

“It’s not only COVID, there are other things going around, it seems, but there is a noticeable spike.

“The situation is difficult at the moment because many already have no resources to spare, so when there are a lot of cases, they need to get by with even less resources. It’s very acute at the moment. Many are in a situation where even if they are one person down, they can feel the pinch.

“It’s, of course, a case-by-case basis. Those who can work from home are not feeling it as much, but when you’re sick and must report for work in order to do your job, it’s an even bigger problem.”

She added that although relaxed quarantine regulations have lessened the impact on business, a solution to find and retain more workers in the long term is needed.

Need for foreign workers

She said the solution the chamber is working towards is to get additional overseas resources to businesses and that is why it is working with Identity Malta and the foreign affairs ministry to reach that goal.

"Currently, we are not at an ideal human resource compliment and we don’t have space for absenteeism,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Malta Chamber of Commerce also highlighted how COVID absenteeism was just a symptom of the chronic problem of staff shortages faced by businesses.

“Businesses have been adapting to new realities since the start of the pandemic. Apart from that, new technologies are helping to find new solutions,” the spokesperson said.

“The biggest challenge is the chronic shortage of human resources, which is being exacerbated by huge backlogs in visa processing in major source countries and perplexing refusals of visa issues for genuine employers.

“Another thing which continues to make matters worse for the private sector is the loss of employees to the public sector and subcontractors of the public sector. COVID-related absences are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Andrew Agius Muscat, CEO of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association, said that even in international fora, employers in the tourism industry were lamenting about a lack of human resources to staff businesses.

“The problem is global. When we speak to our international counterparts we hear the same thing, the shortage of staff across the board, but particularly in the tourism and nursing areas,” he said.

“At the moment, we can particularly see this problem unfold with airlines. Planes can’t fly because there aren’t enough staff to fill a roster. Some are linked to industrial action but there is still a shortage of staff.”

“Obviously, when people get sick, it continues to add pressure to the situation.”

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us