G&M talks with Martin O’Connor

One of hospitality’s quiet achievers steps up to mark

Widely respected South Australian Front of House Manager Martin O’Connor, a hospitality professional with over thirty years’ experience, recently became a casualty of the impacts of the COVID-19 virus on our industry, finding himself, like so many others, without a job. Martin instantly began lobbying senior Government officials on behalf of the industry, with his passionate appeals for help eventually finding the Prime Minister’s ear.

The very essence of the word hospitality is embodied by Martin’s unselfish and tireless role as an advocate and hero for an industry that he loves, which is under both immense financial and emotional siege, at a time when so many of his peers find themselves in the same position and are looking for hope.  

Martin, you are recognised as one of the leading front of house professionals in the industry, can you firstly discuss the impact of COVID-19 on your own employment?

Along with many of thousands in the restaurant industry, the COVID-19 virus has now left me unemployed. Due to the laws closing restaurants, cafés and pubs I cannot, for the foreseeable future, gain another position within the industry that I have worked in for 30 years and love so dearly.

Impressively, you have assumed a leadership position in contacting the relevant Minister to advocate on entitlements for hospitality professionals who have lost their jobs and made considerable ground in that role. Can you talk us through how that occurred, and what has been achieved to date?

It started out with simply sending the South Australian Premier, Mr Steven Marshall, a message via Instagram last Friday suggesting the idea that those that have lost their jobs be entitled to access up to 10K of their superannuation to get them through. I was surprised and delighted when he replied personally and took the idea to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The next thing I knew Steven replied to me to say that the PM had fast tracked the idea and it was approved and announced at a Federal press conference on Sunday.

Jobseeker payments had nothing to do with me, but I did urge Steven to push for the normal restrictions and waiting periods when a person becomes unemployed be removed so that those without an income could access money in a faster timeframe. I am continuing to speak with our Premier and others within the South Australian restaurant industry to come up with prioritised solutions for both business owners and employees as the situation changes on a daily basis. The paramount amongst these are complete freezes (not suspensions) of mortgages and rents for business owners and individuals, both to survive in the short term and to rebuild after this crisis, without crushing debts that would force many to lose both their businesses and their homes.

You have been very positive about the future of the industry. Can you elaborate on that?

We are resilient. We are also based in the nature of hospitality. That is giving of us to others. And in these tough times we are all finding ways to support each other and implement ideas to survive the crisis right now via initiatives like Chefs on Wheels and other delivery and takeaway initiatives that will help keep some businesses afloat, some people in jobs and give hope to the rest of us that may very well be feeling hopeless. We in the restaurant industry give. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. And once we come through this we will have gained new skills and mindsets to re-build the industry from scratch that will help us to become the people and society that we are meant to be. 

What do you think the mental health impacts of this crisis will be, given hospitality was one of the first to be locked down?

I believe there will be many mental health issues, both short and long term, that we as an industry will face. We love serving. We love interacting. We love caring for people. And without this, many are already beginning to feel lost and aimless. The isolation from our colleagues, our second families in restaurants, will be the largest hurdle. It can result in a loss of identity. A loss of purpose. Many within the industry are already starting support group networks for each other to connect online and share our feelings in a safe environment. We may seem tough on the outside but we hurt just as profoundly as any other people going through this crisis. There are many free professional counselling systems being put in place for all of us to access and I urge everyone to reach out and speak to a mental health professional. There is no shame in this.

For unemployed industry professionals, what do you suggest as positive initiatives they can engage in whilst we are tackling this crisis, as you have clearly decided to focus on advocating during this unsettling time?

That’s a hard one to answer in the limited timeframe of this interview as is it has many facets, chief among them being self-isolation to help slow down the spread of the virus. But for those that are in low-risk groups I would encourage them, especially chefs, to volunteer some of their time in hospitals, Meals on Wheels and other places where their talents can be used for the good of the community. Helping support others in need is the best way forward. Many of us in front of house know the true nature of giving and I have been humbled to watch the actions of my colleagues, as they help not only those in our industry, but also the community. It’s not all about money, I know we need it to pay our bills, but if the Federal Government step up and do what is needed now, not in a few weeks time, I believe you will see a community that will display what humanity is all about. Caring about each other. Caring about what we do to the planet. Caring about more than chasing the almighty dollar.

Can you discuss some of the personal impacts this has had on you and your family, and what Government can do better to assist others in the same situation?

Personally, my two daughters have had their hours (they aren’t in hospitality by the way) reduced to two days a week and have to also now rely on government assistance to survive. Our middle daughter is now 6 months pregnant and she and her partner have just bought their first home. So the anxiety that she is experiencing is quite devastating but we as a family have rallied and we will continue to do so. We are focusing on each other on a daily basis and also seeking mental health professionals to get through this awful time. Family is all that matters. I’ve lost both my parents and two of my siblings; so trust me when I say family is the main thing we should be focusing on. If the government step up to the plate to do what is needed for all Australians to survive financially then this will be a huge step forward in allowing people to fix themselves, physically and mentally.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to thank all Australians for coming together during this time to look after each other. To call out those that hoard supplies. To call out those that continue with the ME not WE mentality. To help and support those that are doing it tougher than others. Our older citizens, our young children and those that have no homes or families to take care of them. This is bigger than the restaurant industry but by God we will play our part in surviving and re-building. I would lastly like to thank those that have motivated me to continue being active for our industry with all the positive calls, messages and emails sending love and support. 

Interview as at 26 March 2020