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The Restaurant Labor Shortage Was Inevitable

Stimulus payments aren’t the only thing keeping workers on the sidelines

If you’re a responsible restaurant owner with a track record of treating your employees respectfully, let me apologize in advance. For the rest of you—too many to count—who’ve made your fortunes at the expense of your staff, don’t be surprised when your help-wanted ads go unanswered.

Finding qualified staff willing to work has emerged as one of the biggest challenges to recovery. As Coronavirus case loads decline and access to vaccines expands, consumer demand for dining out has grown, but the pool of restaurant workers, many who’ve been relying on unemployment benefits for months, has not.

Some hospitality professionals have abandoned the industry altogether. Months of waiting to return to their old jobs has left many workers worried about being left alone at the altar. Others chose to relocate to places where jobs are plentiful—cities like Miami where disruption to restaurant businesses has been ameliorated by more permissive public health policies.

In the early innings of the pandemic, Hanna Raskin of the Charleston Post and Courier reported on the staffing outlook in her home state and beyond. Among other silver linings, restaurant workers she interviewed celebrated having more time to spend with family, perfecting bread baking skills and enjoying the pleasures eating three meals a day at regular intervals (something a restaurant schedule never accommodates).

These anecdotes portrayed the pandemic as a desperately needed sabbatical for many former staff (even though most admit that they didn’t sign up for normal lives when they chose a restaurant career.) Even then, an owner touts his focus on making working conditions at his restaurant “so bearable” that staff won’t want to leave. But making working conditions more bearable is hardly an ambitious goal.

Media narratives are now predictably switching from suffering workers caught up in the maelstrom to victimized restaurateurs struggling to recruit staff. As it would be with any industry, it’s a false assumption that money is the only motivating factor for an entire industry’s workforce. Many workers are feeling restless. Others have lost faith in the industry as a viable career path.

Restaurant Labor Shortage

Even with vaccines on the rise, restaurant workers are still among the most vulnerable to contracting the virus at work. Some individuals who’ve lost their jobs also lost their heath insurance coverage during the worst public health crisis in a generation. When the industry shut down, many owners immediately laid off their entire staff, no questions asked, even their most loyal workers.

The assumption that the attractiveness of unemployment benefits is causing labor shortage is an oversimplification. But restaurant workers are accustomed to being blamed for things that aren’t our fault. We’re trained to feel responsible for failures even when we ought not be—by people that are disappointed with their food when they didn’t understand what they were ordering; by large parties that arrive over an hour late for their reservation and are refused a table; or just by average run-of-the-mill miserable patrons who will themselves into having a miserable experience for which we, in turn, are expected to shoulder the guilt.

Meanwhile, in the name of hospitality, ownership and management continually elevate the status of guests above the status of their employees, cowering to guests regardless of whether their complaints have merit. They obsess over the staff’s failures without celebrating its successes. They’ll say it’s tough love, but many restaurant workers now realize that tough love is the only kind of love the industry has to offer.

So, why should restaurant workers feel compelled to help carry the burden for a struggling industry that so often took them for granted when times were good? Many owners are now learning the hard way that the labor market will dry up if they cannot attract workers with better wages. Some are even offering cash bonuses up front to onboard new employees.

A recent article in the Washington City Paper by Laura Hayes offers a measured analysis of what’s behind the labor issue in the current climate. One server describes feeling abandoned. She says, “It left us feeling like if this happened again, we can’t trust that we would be taken care of. We’re not considered essential except by people who don’t want to cook.”

Fear of contracting Covid-19 is still high on the list of reasons restaurant workers are opting out. For the moment, there is no organized way to verify whether guests have received the vaccine—and there likely never will be—which puts workers at even further at risk. With new variants emerging and a significant percentage of the population refusing to be vaccinated, indoor dining can still be counted among the most dangerous vectors for contagion.

As Ms. Hayes’ article indicates, many workers don’t trust management to implement and enforce proper protocols and to prioritize safety of staff. Over the last decade, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of wage theft lawsuits and well-publicized harassment allegations. Restaurants owners, by and large, have an undistinguished record when it comes to taking care of their workers. It’s no wonder that so many workers are apprehensive about reconciliation.

This past week, a manager of an Outback Steakhouse in Memphis posted a makeshift sign on the entrance blaming their staffing issues on people’s unwillingness to return to work because of stimulus money. The company apologized on social media and the sign was removed, but the public shaming of former staff members points to a deeper cultural problem endemic to the hospitality industry. Staff are too often subjected to this kind of unwarranted contempt.

There’s more to workers’ reticence about rejoining the workforce than a stimulus check. Returning to work brings with it a whole new set of challenges: inconsistent scheduling, unpredictable income, and the possibility that capacity restrictions or lockdowns may be reinstated.

The jobs that restaurant workers are being asked to return to aren’t the same jobs. Staff are now tasked with policing masking, moving heavy furniture to configure outdoor dining, and packaging to-go orders. Imagine if you were furloughed from your job then offered it back with more responsibility and less pay; you probably wouldn’t be in a hurry to return to that job either.

Few restaurant businesses, especially smaller independently-run ones, offer health insurance or retirement benefits to their hourly employees. In many cases, laid off workers became eligible for cost-free or affordable health care via the ACA marketplace. Returning to work would risk forfeiting those government subsidies and likely make insuring oneself impossible on a modest restaurant salary.

The generational sociological issues that have bubbled to the surface in recent years—MeToo, Black Lives Matter, AAPI Hate—have made it impossible to hide the skeletons in so many restaurant closets. This weighs heavily on the collective consciousness of the industry and is making returning to normalcy a feeble aspiration.

Earning a living by catering to the needs of rich, mostly white people in fancy restaurants requires a tamping down of one’s own social consciousness. The choices that restaurant workers today are making about whether or not to stay in the industry must be seen through the prism of these tectonic shifts that have defined the pandemic era.

Restaurant owners will need to offer more incentives to attract quality workers and foster healthier workplaces. This means running their businesses in a way that demonstrates a deeper commitment to gender equity and racial justice. Hospitality careers will not be as attractive in the near term, which puts the onus on restaurateurs to treat their staff better and pay them more, a lesson they should’ve learned a long time ago. But as they say: Sometimes you never know what you had until you’ve lost it.


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Luis
Luis
6 months ago

For many of us in the restaurant industry this year has been like a long fight, and once the fight was over, we felt the bruises. We remembered we had friends, family, and hobbies, while letting ourselves feel a lot of the pain and injustices we suffer from employers and guests for years and years. It’s no wonder that when other industries came looking for people with, “previous restaurant experience,” for things related to customer service, sales, and marketing jobs, many opted to go there and experience what a weekend actually feels like, and working a 40-hour week, that’s ACTUALLY… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
6 months ago

Well said. It’s a thankless, unforgiving industry that takes far more than it gives. It’s so true that employers instantly let go of people, no questions asked, and many of us were left in limbo without anywhere to turn. People beat their bodies up working in restaurants physically and mentally. We go hours on our feet, no time to stop and drink water, eat, or use the restroom. Breaks? Ha! Health insurance? Seldom. Exploitation of loyal employees? Absolutely. I’ve worked for wonderful people, and I’ve worked for evil people…at the end of the day, the clarity is exposed of just… Read more »

Luca Pasquinelli
Luca Pasquinelli
6 months ago

Thank you Adam, very well said. I left the states for those exact reasons. At the time of the pandemic 03/15/20 I had the beast job of my career as executive Beverage Manager with a great company, or so I thought. Got laid off and waited a while just to understand that I wasn’t really needed back again. Ever! not even as server or to pack food to go. I then realized that few of my colleagues were hired again for the soft opening, the to go, and for few dining al fresco. And I thought I was important to… Read more »

Joel
Joel
6 months ago

I am retired do not miss having to work all holidays , all Family event , taking vacation when the weather sucks , unable to have a social life because we had to work , people talk about soldier going away for a year without seeing their spouse , well I don’t know how it happen but we had a Child , I had the am duty , passing the baby all tucked in to my wife over the banister at the subway station saying fresh diaper fed , love you , on my way to work She on her… Read more »

Grant
Grant
6 months ago

This is a great article and yet it still doesn’t even begin to touch on the fact that a lot of us in the industry had been looking for ways out for years without any hope of actually being able to move on. When everything got shut down we were able to actually spend time with ourselves and use the pause in the industry to go back to school, refine that hobby we always loved and turn it into a job, etc. (and unemployment’s only role in this is that it gave us the space and time to do these… Read more »

j buffett
j buffett
6 months ago

i never thought about restaurant jobs being destination jobs or careers. it was something you did with little skill required while you trained for something better or got you over a tight spot.

John Mcneill
John Mcneill
6 months ago

Pre-Covid posted Bartender job withdraw 70 applications. This week 12 and one didn’t show up for the interview the other didn’t show for the job!

Christopher Naughton
6 months ago

Nicely said— especially the last line reminding us to appreciate what we have had all along. I have had a doctor of mine complaining about the same thing. And maybe people just don’t want to come back to your business, not because they are sackers, but because their hard work was not fully appreciated. Let’s hope this is a Covid re-set and workers in general start realizing greater pay for the work that makes America go.

Kayla
6 months ago

This is so well written and full of the emotion that I felt through most of last year. I miss the industry that I poured 15 years of my life into, but it’s not the same industry anymore. I think I’ll be perfecting my baking at home and watching my kid grow up until we’re appreciated a bit more.

Casey
Casey
6 months ago

Not too bad until you mentioned “rich white folks” & racial equity.
In the places I’ve worked at you see a lot of blue collar types with their families. A lot of the clientele are also people of color. So, no, the restaurants I’ve worked at don’t cater to “rich white people.”

Joe
Joe
6 months ago

What’s missing from this article is that this younger generation is soft and does not have the work ethic of previous generations. Not all of them but the vast majority. No, not all parts of the industry is glamorous and I agree that pay is an issue in some areas especially BOH but FOH where employees make hundreds a night is also witnessing a labor shortage. Therefore, I am calling BS on this article.

Michael A
Michael A
6 months ago

After the 2008 financial crisis, chain restaurants like McDonald’s and others made record profits for a decade and did not raise employee wages.

When corporations got the Trump tax cut for the wealthy and corporations companies did not raise any wages and gave out a one-time bonus for posterity sake.

Now these crap companies can’t get employees back, And don’t want to raise salaries.

So the only care about capitalism as long as it benefits them and nobody else.

Kevin
Kevin
6 months ago

Many of us were terminated with out notice when the shut down came. Many of our “owner, treat you like family employers” filed for PPP meant to be used for employees and other costs only to be shut out and dependent on unemployment. Servers were the worst hit as their wage is company script low And earnings are mostly tips, boh staff held at 38 hr weeks since Obama were hit equally hard. Our industry is made up of mostly hustlers, hard workers and those working two to three jobs to live at or slightly above poverty. Amazon bis paying… Read more »

Tom Stevens
Tom Stevens
6 months ago

You lost me until the obligatory shot at white people. If you had left that out, it would have improved the article, not diminished it. Blaming people as a group because of the color of their skin is wrong.

Jay
Jay
6 months ago

I agree with the alot of what you are saying. But your article is flawed. You blame the restauranteurs without any reference to the economics of the restaurant business. The average restaurant barely profits 5 cents on the dollar if at all. Where do you suppose they get the “fair ” wages from? If you think even 10% of restauranuers are “making fortunes” you are dillusional. David chang once said in an article that in order for the economics of a restaurant to truly work we all have to charge triple the price of what we charge now. Do you… Read more »

Kara
Kara
6 months ago

This article is so one sided. Having been in the restaurant business for 40 years there was a time everyone got treated well and worked like family. This article places blame all on owners. Never asks the question what got them here? Over the years employees have also put owners through the ringer. No shows, drugs, alcohol, not doing job, harassing other co workers, yelling at customers, suing owners, dictating schedules, not coming in when needed. Obviously not all restaurant workers are like this but as the saying goes “one bad apple spoils the bunch”. It would be nice if… Read more »

Norrin Radd
Norrin Radd
6 months ago

Loads of assured speculation and opinions filtered through dogma, with no facts to back either. Sophistry.

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Talia
Talia
6 months ago

As someone who currently works in a small mom&pop restaurant, I’ve seen how their response to COVID has been. I really don’t think it’s fair to blame restaurants for the inability to see applications being filled out or people not showing up at all once they get hired. It causes a chain reaction. The longer we go with not being able to get the help that we need, the longer that the “good” employees get overworked in order to fill those spaces. An overworked employee will eventually get to their breaking point and quit. And the cycle continues, but getting… Read more »

Samson Eligio
Samson Eligio
6 months ago

Good Article. The one asset that employers have to realize is that their biggest value are their employees. Without employees, you can’t run a business. Or at least a good running business. The F&B business is brutal but those that usually succeed are those with loyal patrons that adore the people that take care of them, the employees. In the first paragraph, only a few leaders, owners know the value of great employees and takes care of them to their best ability. If staff have competent compassionate leaders that they can trust, they will stick with you through the worst… Read more »

Steven R Maestas
Steven R Maestas
5 months ago

I appreciate this article and really took away a lot from it. I was a waiter during college and the experience really does much for someone in working in fast pace environment, as a team and overall taking care of a customer for an experience that lasts only an hour while providing a positive impact. Often with this work, taking on an ownership role of the job is vital because you want a happy customer and one that will come back and ask for you too. I know restaurant owners that work 7 days a week and that can lead… Read more »

philip hamilton
philip hamilton
5 months ago

Absolutely this, really hits all the notes. I left the industry to work for a nonprofit and have not looked back after 10 years of trying to make it work. Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece.

Rhonda Hanaway
Rhonda Hanaway
5 months ago

All I can say is O.M.G…who wrote this article? Obviously you HAVEN’T run a restaurant before. How about dealing with employees who show up drunk or high on heroin? How about food prices and margins? We have employees that have been with us for years because we treat them with respect…but PLEASE…waiting on white, rich people??? I’d say this article was written by the VERY LEFT! So sad.

j6j6
j6j6
5 months ago

this article wasn’t meant to be read to the finish I suspect. The comment about only serving rich white people is in itself racist as it assumes that only rich white folks eat in fine dining restaurants. In my 25 year career I’ve been treated mostly very well by ownership who recognize that good staff are difficult to find, expensive to train and impossible to replace. The hospitality industry is in the midst of a massive transition which is being fast tracked due to COVID. The transition isn’t gong to be pretty and those that are unable to adapt will… Read more »

Eric
Eric
5 months ago

Really liked the article. My wife and I purchased a restaurant in Feb ’21 after carefully evaluating its success post shutdown. We had always discussed ‘bringing back’ professional service and valuing our staff much higher than we’ve experienced in our years as employees. A career for individuals who excel in our industry have a right to stay in our industry and be valued as such. As an employee for 20 odd years, I’ve been undervalued and over worked for someone elses gain. My goal is to chip away at the industry’s negative stigma and cater more to the employee than… Read more »

Gwendolyn Capers-Wilson
Gwendolyn Capers-Wilson
5 months ago

Clear and concise…well written. All the high points were addressed. COVID-19 has given the Industry the opportunity to reshape itself….I hope the powers at be are paying attention.

Keeta
Keeta
5 months ago

A worthy read, too bad the ones who should be reading it ie the owners and managers wont read it as many ar incapablemof accepting the blame and taking responsibility for changes needed

Mark campagnolo
Mark campagnolo
5 months ago

“Restaurant owners who have made fortunes“… I personally would like to meet one. Obviously the author of this article has no clue of the stressors, responsibilities and the intense personal risk owners take every day just to get the doors open. Labor shortage is a problem for sure. But as an operator we can’t even get product delivered, because of Covid, food production and supply is down which means prices are up. So being competitive now becomes even more difficult. Restaurant owners make the investment, take all the risk and reap very little. We hire servers, train them, set up… Read more »

Tom
Tom
5 months ago

Everything in this article is very true and understandable. The only thing that is incorrect is the assumption that restaurant owners are making a lot of money. Yes there are a few. But it is a small percentage. Many restaurant owners that I know of are actually leaving their restaurant closed right now because they themselves are making more money by staying home and collecting the additional unemployment. This is rarely reported but it is more common than you think. I own a restaurant and many of my servers make more than I do. I am completely happy with that!… Read more »

Perry Baldwin
Perry Baldwin
5 months ago

Very true! Its all about how employees are treated. For instance, Hotels that believe that there is just a huge pool of unemployed and they can have unreal expectations for a position and treat people so disrepectfully.

I have personally watched management who cared and ownership that is only about every nickel!

Very sad…and the reason people are pivoting away from hospitality.

Michiko Kobayashi
Michiko Kobayashi
5 months ago

I found this page in researching for an op ed making pretty much the same point. Well written, and I’m stoked to have found you guys!

terry hampton
terry hampton
5 months ago

the problem with the restaurant industry they never treated their employees very well they never pay very well and never gave them any healthcare or any type they got to remember their employees are people if you want employees you pay them better your employees or past employees are people to and future customers

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[…] reporting on the seemingly endless stream of notable chefs that double as chronic abusers. Rampant labor shortages are intertwined with workers’ apprehensiveness about returning to an industry with so many […]