COVID-19 pandemic exposes new challenges for the restaurant industry

When COVID-19 reached the United States and government restrictions were imposed – the closure of indoor meals in much of the country – millions of restaurant workers were left out of work. But now, as restaurants reopen and people go out to eat again, owners face a different challenge: their employees have not returned.

“What I remember most from those first few months and weeks is the word ‘heartbreak’,” said Sava Farah, owner of The Pulpo Group, which operates three restaurants in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “We had to lay off over 200 employees we called family.”

At the time, no one knew how long restaurants would be forced to supplant their income with take-out and alfresco dining. For many, that was never going to cut him.

The National Association of Restaurateurs estimates that in the first six months of the pandemic, nearly one in six restaurants – nearly 100,000 businesses – closed.

Industry exhausted

Things started to improve in December 2020, when the federal government authorized the first two COVID-19 vaccines. Soon after, cases started to decrease, restrictions began to be lifted, and restaurants were once again able to open their doors for indoor dining.

But even though customers returned, many workers did not.

“If you look at who works in restaurants in 2019 compared to today, there are about a million people who are missing,” said Micheline Maynard, Washington Post columnist and author of the soon-to-be-released “Satisfaction Guaranteed”. : How Zingerman’s Builds a Corner Grocery Store in a Global Food Community. “

The labor shortage has far-reaching effects on the industry. Many restaurants are having to reduce their hours, sometimes opening only for dinner service rather than all-day service. Some even cut whole days of service.

The reasons for the labor shortage have become political.

Republicans argue that the money offered under the enhanced unemployment programs passed by Congress has removed the incentive for people to return to work.

These improved unemployment benefits will not last forever, however. The Biden administration is ending enhanced federal unemployment benefits on Labor Day, and before that, more than half of U.S. states had already ended unemployment increases.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue that it’s not about paying people too much to stay at home, it’s about paying people too little to work.

“You get a really low salary,” Maynard said of many restaurant jobs. “Up to $ 5 less than minimum wage, and your tips are supposed to drive you up to minimum or above.”

But even restaurants that offer higher wages struggle to find workers.

An industry that needs a reset

Micheline Maynard and Sava Farah say the real problem lies with the industry itself.

The hospitality industry is already very stressful and physically taxing, and now the pandemic has brought new challenges, including an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“The servers are responsible for reminding people to wear a mask,” Maynard said.

Those who return to work in the restaurant business also have to work harder due to understaffing. But because they lack that extra set of hands, the serve becomes slower and the tables don’t turn as quickly.

“And the person who hears the complaints about it is the waiter,” Maynard said. “It’s hard for the staff, it’s hard for the owners, they are stressed all the time [and] people are leaving. “

Sava Farah said long before the pandemic that the stress of the restaurant industry was already leading to a “culture of burnout” – a culture that was often accompanied by drug and alcohol use.

Now with the added problem of staff shortages, she thinks it’s time to reset the industry – even if that means some doors have to close.

“I don’t think that’s a very bad thing. I know that at least one of my restaurants is closed,” Farah said. “There is far too much competition in the market right now and this is forcing all the restaurants around to lower their prices. And when you lower your prices, you lower your rates of pay, you lower your profit margins, you lower the caliber of the restaurant. “

Micheline Maynard said it might also be time for lawmakers to get involved, especially if more federal money ends up going to restaurants.

“Basically Congress and then the Obama and Bush administrations said there would be conditions to be met,” Maynard said, recalling the auto bailouts during the Great Recession that ushered in industry reforms. “Restaurants need the same kind of scrutiny.”

Listen to this special ABC News Radio story “Help Wanted” for Labor Day below:


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Cecil N. Messick

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