Why America’s restaurant industry is facing a hiring crisis as Covid restrictions end

JThe US restaurant industry is still struggling to make up for losses suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a range of factors including capacity restrictions and lingering fears over the virus contributing to a shortage of food. available or interested employees.

Business owners large and small have been sounding the alarm for months over their inability to rehire laid-off or furloughed employees, as well as a dearth of interested potential new employees.

Many, especially conservatives, have argued that continued government assistance in the form of federal unemployment insurance benefits exacerbates the situation, as workers supposedly make more money remaining unemployed than they do. at work.

The real cause of the shortage, which is widespread and affecting restaurants of all sizes, is more nuanced and involves several factors, including industry pay rates that have long concerned many people even before the coronavirus pandemic began. Covid-19.

Small local restaurants, in particular, have reported in various media interviews about their inability to find servers, who rely primarily on tips to make a living, as businesses where workers supplement their income with tips often pay lower rates. than the minimum wage.

According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly three out of four of all restaurant owners in the United States now say that “recruiting and retaining the workforce” is their number one challenge.

A restaurant and movie theater operations manager in Bethesda, Maryland said The Independent that up to eight out of ten candidates for vacancies abandon their applications before the interview stage or do not show up for interviews.

Such a system runs into a major problem in the form of capacity restrictions, which means that wait staff working in states with such restrictions, of which there are still many, face the prospect of either serving less tables during a shift (resulting in less tipping), or seeing reduced hours to accommodate other employees. As a result, many are indeed facing the prospect of earning less money returning to work than if they continued to receive unemployment assistance.

However, the problem doesn’t stop with tipped employees; many establishments report difficulty hiring support staff, including cooks and dishwashers, positions that are often paid at a flat rate, often well above the local or federal minimum wage.

The likelihood that these positions, which would be less likely to have their hours reduced than front-line staff, will pay less than unemployment benefits (which are increased by $300 per week federally until September) is not high, especially in high-income metropolitan centers where cooks and other staff can earn many times the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Other concerns explain why back-house staff may be reluctant to return. A study from the University of California earlier this year revealed that the food industry has seen some of the highest increases in death rates, with line cooks in particular at the highest risk of death compared to periods not pandemics of all job descriptions examined in the study. It was unclear whether dishwashers and other back-of-house employees were included.

“I haven’t been back since”, a former line cook Recount Eater in an interview in May, “because I really can’t trust any restaurateur to provide a safe environment for their employees.”

Black and Latino workers, who are represented in restaurant kitchens at a much higher rate than other industries, are also more likely to have family situations in which they are required to act as primary caregivers. a child, an aging parent or other loved one, complicating their ability to return to work.

“With fewer people in the workforce, stimulus supports still in place, worker safety concerns, the need for caregivers to stay home, and much greater competition with other industries for workers, operators are reverting to pre-pandemic recruiting techniques for hiring,” Vanessa Sink, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement to The Independent.

“These include higher hourly pay rates, additional benefits and professional development opportunities, among others. All restaurant sales are local, so ultimately local market forces will impact not only the increase in the workforce needed, but also the particular incentives needed to recruit those employees,” added Ms. Sink.

Closing the health gap between restaurant owners and their employees will likely be an ongoing effort by the industry, which according to federal labor statistics is still just under two million fewer active employees. than the number she employed in April 2020, just before the weight of the statewide lockdowns began.

Some changes are already on the way. Hiring websites now frequently list the Covid-19 precautions individual restaurants are taking to protect staff and customers, and managers often list those measures they are also taking directly on job flyers.

“I think we’re at a point where people are like, ‘We’re going to have to raise our prices, because we have to pay our employees more money, and we have to give them benefits when we can,'” Chef Joseph Tiedmann of La Petit Grocery in New Orleans told Eater in May.

“We need to make it an attractive business. Ultimately, it’s about being able to do more for your employees. But to do that, you’re going to have to pay one way or another.

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Cecil N. Messick