Hospitality operators in the Bay of Islands say it will take more than the Government's recent changes to foreign workers' visa settings to save their flailing industry.
At least 10 restaurants, bars and cafes in Paihia and Russell urgently need over 50 skilled staff to help with the peak summer season.
Some are on the brink of throwing in the towel as they struggle to hire and retain skilled staff amid labour shortages exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even the Government's announcement to extend the visas of many migrant workers has failed to boost confidence in business owners who say reducing service levels may be the next step.
Zane Grey's Restaurant and Bar in Paihia currently needed nine staff to fill various positions, and had been advertising since August.
Executive assistant Melissa Bryne said they had struggled to find anyone suitable.
A few locals had been hired, she said, but "we haven't had much success keeping them employed".
"We hire them, they're local and they either don't show up or they work for a few weeks and they stop without really informing us why."
Bryne said one young woman who was hired, signed the contract, filled out the paperwork and was given a uniform.
"She didn't show up for her first three shifts. The next weekend she had another three shifts and didn't show up even though we contacted her multiple times - she's just disappeared.
"Another girl we had trained ... and in her first shift she had a panic attack and quit.
"I'm not sure why this is happening, but it only seems to happen with locals."
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced on December 20 the Government would extend the visas of many migrant workers currently in New Zealand to ease labour shortfalls.
Working holiday and employer-assisted work visas will be extended six months.
There will also be a 12-month stand-down period for low-paid essential skills visa holders, and the 2019 median wage of $25.50 per hour for immigration settings would be retained until at least July 2021.
Faafoi said the visa changes will run well into next year and would provide certainty for employers and workers.
"Our economy is bouncing back better than expected and we are seeing labour shortages across many industries," Faafoi said.
"With the labour market outlook being more optimistic, we are implementing a range of changes to ensure the migrant workforce already in New Zealand can supplement employers' efforts to recruit New Zealanders who have lost jobs due to Covid."
Bryne said the visa changes would help "quite a bit".
Two of her workers who were unsure of their visa status would now be able to extend them until July.
After that, she's not sure.
"Covid has created an interesting dynamic where we are very busy during the weekends and school holidays, and then much slower than usual during the week.
"Pre-Covid, we would have 70 plus cruise ships come through Paihia which would greatly increase revenue, but we also had an influx of international travellers who would work for us during the summer season.
"This year we are experiencing those cruise ship-like rushes on weekends, but we don't have the staff to cope with the volume of people."
Duke of Marlborough co-owner Riki Kinnaird said he's been looking for 10 senior waiters and senior chefs since July.
"We've had responses but they're not that skilled.
"Ninety-five per cent don't fit, and the other 5 per cent don't even know where Northland is.
"It's harder than ever to find skilled staff."
Kinnaird, who is also the Bay of Islands Marketing Group chairman, said the hospitality industry was already struggling to find skilled staff, and that's been exacerbated by Covid.
"All the quality staff which we need peak season are not there.
"We need skilled staff right now whether they're migrants or locals."
Kinnaird said he knows of two restaurants in Paihia who are looking at throwing in the towel.
"It's just too hard. They can't work seven days a week in peak offering a good service and product without good staff. Covid has made everyone tired and reassess.
"The only solution is to reduce service levels.
"That's the only solution if you haven't got staff."
However, Hospitality NZ welcomed the Government's changes to visa settings.
"This is a game changer for the hospitality sector with the high season right on us," chief executive Julie White said.
"Summer trading is key to carrying many operators through winter.
"Many will now be able to have a more relaxed Christmas knowing they are more likely to get the staff they need."
Federated Farmers employment spokesperson Chris Lewis also welcomed the changes.
"Farmers and growers up and down the land will be pleased with the pragmatic decision by Government to extend visas for migrant workers already on our shores.
"For more than a few farm businesses, the smaller ones in particular, production is being held together by people doing extra jobs they don't normally do and/or working longer hours.
"It makes sense as we seek to rev up the post-Covid economy to keep the services of migrant workers already in New Zealand while we train more Kiwi workers."
Ways for employers to keep their migrant workers
• Workers on employer-assisted visas can renew, and other migrants can obtain Essential Skills visas, if they have an offer of work for 30 hours per week and it can be shown that there are no New Zealanders available to do the job.
• Employers of low-paid migrant workers, who are subject to the stand-down period, can avoid the stand-down period by paying above the median wage.
• MSD has made it easier for employers to see if New Zealanders are available for jobs by creating lists of occupations and regions where there is a clear over or undersupply of New Zealanders on Job Seeker Support.