Pledge to return CBD workers

By David Schout

Some of the city’s largest employers will aim to return 70 per cent of their workforce when “work from home” guidelines are lifted.

In a meeting with the City of Melbourne, representatives from entities like ANZ, Metro Trains, PwC, Telstra and NAB vowed to return more than two-thirds of their workforce when safe to do so.

The move is a reassuring sign for the CBD’s hospitality and retail sector, which has suffered as a result of the sharp decline in foot traffic brought about by COVID-19.

The corporate workforce is a key economic driver, and workers were responsible for half of the city’s population prior to the pandemic.

Their mass exodus since March has crippled many small and medium CBD businesses that rely on their presence.

While the pledge is a targeted number rather than a binding agreement, it represents an indication that big businesses plan to return a majority of their workers back post-pandemic.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the city needed some form of reassurance for when work from home guidelines were lifted by the state government.

“City workers and students provide so much life and energy to our city,” Cr Capp said at a November 17 Future Melbourne Committee (FMC) meeting.

“They are a pulse and a lifeblood to our city economy, and we are missing all of those factors in our city at the moment.”

Property Council data revealed that office occupancy in the CBD was at just eight per cent in October, which has had a profound flow-on effect.

According to the council, food businesses in the city have been hit hard with seven point five per cent closed permanently and a further eight per cent considering closing.

Spending at restaurants, cafes and pubs in the CBD is down by 90 per cent from February levels.

Cr Capp said that while this predicament meant they were keen for workers to return as soon as possible, things would be done safely.

“We of course don’t expect 100 per cent of workers to come back to work on day one; it’s unrealistic and it’s unsafe … [it is] about coor- dinating staggered days, staggered start times and ensuring an orderly and safe return for workers. It’s in everyone’s best interests to see that happen.”

On November 22, Premier Daniel Andrews announced that from November 30, up to 25 per cent of workers, who have to be nominated by their employers, would be able to return to on-site to workplaces.

The Lord Mayor welcomed the announcement.

“Today’s announcement is the first step towards welcoming our workforce back to the city and I want commend the Victorian Government,” Cr Capp said.

“I’ve been meeting with major city employers for many months and I’m confident that we can safely bring workers back with a phased approach.”

“More workers in the city means cash registers ringing and more Melburnians staying in jobs.”

“I’m excited for all the workers who’ve been stuck on Zoom meetings at home and missing their favourite coffee shops and other city rituals.”

“This announcement means workers be able to come into the city to enjoy their end of year celebrations.”

Voucher scheme in the works

And in a move that could replicate the UK’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, the council will also explore the possibility of a voucher pro- gram for city businesses.

Under the scheme, the UK government offered a 50 per cent discount off bills at restaurants, up to the value of £10 per person, to eat out on certain days of the week.

And Cr Capp confirmed the council was looking at a similar scheme, whereby a venue would receive full value for the meal, subsidised by the council.

While the UK scheme focused purely on hos- pitality, the council was also exploring vouchers for retail and entertainment outlets.

During the stage four lockdown, Cr Roshena Campbell said daily entertainment spending including hospitality dropped by 95 to 97 per cent.

While the easing of restrictions had seen a bounce-back, it was still 30 to 50 per cent lower than the corresponding period last year, some- thing that was “untenable”.

“It is vital those business owners who have struggled under restrictions are thrown a life- line as our city reopens,” Cr Campbell said.

“Hospitality in particular is a sector that has been on its knees due to COVID, yet it’s at the heart of our city’s vibrant culture. A voucher program would provide a much-needed incen- tive to visit city venues and provide a drawcard to those Melburnians who live outside the city to spend their dining and entertainment dollars within the City of Melbourne.”

The Lord Mayor will speak with Premier Daniel Andrews about the scheme.

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