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Where Did All the Restaurant Workers Go?

My wife and I decided to go eat dinner at Steak ‘n Shake, and as we walked in the door, a big sign read, “Please order at the counter and then seat yourself.” As I read the sign, I was a little confused. If you’ve never been to a Steak ‘n Shake, you typically have an employee seat you and then a waitress comes to take your order. It’s not a nice fancy restaurant by any means, but it’s also not a fast food place were you order at the counter. I looked at my wife, shrugged my shoulders, and then stepped up to the counter to place our order. The manager was very polite and apologized, then said, “I’ll bring your order to the table when it’s ready.”

When my wife and I sat down at our table, I said to her, “That’s odd. I thought those national unemployment benefits ended last month? Wasn’t that why they’ve been telling us no one wanted to work? I guess I thought once that ended we could get back to normal in these restaurants and businesses.” A few minutes later as the manager brought us our food, he overheard us talking about it and said, “Yes, it’s a real problem and I don’t know what to do. We’ve taken about 50 applications in the last week. I’ve called back 25 of those people and not one of them has returned my call.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are still five million fewer Americans employed than before the pandemic lockdowns, and three million of them have left the workforce completely. Employers are crying for workers but they can’t find them even when they pay more. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, 67% of small businesses reported hiring or trying to hire in September, and 42% raised compensation. But a record 51% still have openings they couldn’t fill.

This started to bother me so I searched online for some answers. I’m not sure I found a solution to this problem, but here’s some of the reasons I found.

Health concerns

With COVID-19 cases and outbreaks sweeping through restaurants since the beginning of the pandemic, some restaurants haven’t been able to retain bussers or stay on top of sanitizing. Some employees have even pointed to cases where they were forced to work while waiting for results of their COVID-19 tests after being exposed. With few restaurants offering health care, the risks to personal and family health outweigh the rewards of continuing to work in the hospitality industry.

Job insecurity

Individual restaurants were closed for weeks at a time, or indefinitely, because of COVID-19 cases, leaving many unemployed. Now, as companies begin to offer former employees their jobs back, some are offering part-time work at the same pay. The combination of instability, shortened hours and low pay are leading many to look for other opportunities. Restaurant owners specifically are desperate to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic business operations. Many blame unemployment assistance for the worker shortage, but after being furloughed or laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, many bartenders, cooks and servers have simply moved on to other industries.

Bad customers

Restaurant workers say the stressors that came with working through a public health crisis, from hostile customers who politicized COVID-19 to employers’ disregard for their safety, have taken a toll on their mental health. Enforcing mask mandates led to disgruntled customers who tipped poorly, and some customers become physically combative with servers.

Low pay

Many restaurant jobs pay less than $15 an hour, which meant that many could make more on unemployment, save money on gas and not risk contracting COVID-19. Newly reduced hours make the pay even less attractive. Some back of house staff are trading restaurant jobs for work as warehouse stockers, which pays more and offers more consistency.

Looking for a new opportunity

Wages are only part of the problem. For some, a period of unemployed limbo was a chance to reprioritize their life and explore new careers. For others, it offered the distance to see bigger industry problems that existed before the pandemic, including frustrating work environments, lack of support on and off the job, and nearly nonexistent work-life balance.

I recently spoke with a past client of mine that worked in the restaurant industry prior to Covid. She told me about how uncommunicative her former workplace had been after their shutdown. “We received an official letter stating that we had been laid off because of the pandemic, so we could all successfully file for unemployment, and to ‘reach out’ to headquarters if we had any questions,” she said. “That was the last and only time I heard from the company. I thought it was a massive disrespect to the staff to not keep us informed.” 

Another friend of mine that had a job as a cook pre-COVID told me, “I was drowning. A high-stress job with long hours and no free time caused anxiety and depression, and my performance worsened to the point that I started to hate my job. I felt paralyzed and trapped because I didn’t have a college degree and had never been trained for anything else. Then, the pandemic hit, and despite the confusion, bewilderment, and fear that came with the onset of a pandemic and the collapse of an industry, for the first time in months, I felt like I could breathe. I decided to leave the hospitality industry and go in a different direction.

I realize there is nothing I can do to help solve these problems. I certainly don’t look to the government for answers, but am a firm believer that these businesses will either die off or find a way to make it work. All I can do is be sympathetic to the owners, managers, and servers, thank them for serving me, and tip them well.

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