The Real Reason There's a Restaurant Worker Shortage

It's not unemployment benefits that are stopping workers like me from returning to restaurants. In March 2020, most of us were cast off like yesterday's trash.

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Photo: Maskot / Getty Images

In the days following the recent expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits, many people are looking at restaurant workers and wondering, "Will they or won't they?"

According to the National Restaurant Association's State of the Industry Mid-Year Update, three out of every four restaurant owners now report employee hiring and retention as their greatest difficulty, and many have loudly blamed unemployment benefits as the reason workers aren't returning to restaurants.

This summer, New York Post reporters wrote, "Here's a tip: Waitstaff make more staying home," blaming President Biden for New York City's shortage of food service workers, who are supposedly "raking in cash from unemployment checks."

"A lot of people are like, well, I'm going to just enjoy the summer, spend time with family, keep collecting and then go back to work in September," Jersey City restaurant owner Eva Johannesdottir told Al Jazeera. "Stimulus and unemployment are killing the workforce," a McDonald's franchisee lamented to Business Insider.

Now that unemployment has dried up, will those employees who've been "holding out" return to their jobs? The question misses the point entirely. As a longtime restaurant worker, until the pandemic struck, I know plenty of former colleagues who've already returned to the industry. For those who haven't, including me, it's not unemployment benefits that are giving us pause: it's the feeling of being, well, over it.

In my job as a cook pre-COVID, I was drowning. A high-stress job with long hours and no free time was like dry kindling for my anxiety and depression, and my performance worsened. Thrown into a competitive, survival-of-the-fittest culture that I was in no way equipped to handle, I often felt like everyone was standing by just watching me fail, arms folded. I'd relocated for the job, and quitting seemed like the ultimate failure. I felt paralyzed. 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 always knew that working in a restaurant would be difficult, and I thought I could meet the challenge. I relished the long nights on the line, the burns that lined my forearms like tiger stripes, my aching feet, and my sore back. I'd foregone family holidays and fell out with friends who worked 9-to-5 jobs. Where's the glory in high wages and paid time off, anyway? All of this I accepted without question, but I never imagined the toll of a toxic workplace on my mental health. And now I wonder if life really has to be this way.

This summer, I spoke briefly with a San Francisco sommelier about his COVID-19 experience. When he lost his job, he moved west from Denver; his former restaurant had dropped its staff "like yesterday's trash." "And only just now they're calling us, begging us to come back," he said. But he'd already moved on.

According to a report released by Joblist in July, 38% of former restaurant workers surveyed stated that they would no longer be seeking work in the hospitality industry that fired them. I don't think this should come as a shock; in March 2020, most of us were cast off as overhead.

A colleague told me about how uncommunicative her former workplace had been after its 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."

I could relate to that radio silence. After I was "temporarily" laid off, there was no news, no checking in. They'd made a promise to hire everyone back as soon as possible, yet I saw new faces appear in photos posted on Instagram. I had no intention of returning, and I'd guessed that the feeling would be mutual, but it stung all the same.

Some restaurants did better with their workers. Another friend of mine worked for a large restaurant group that established a rescue fund for employees, based on donations from customers and higher-ups. "All you had to do was apply," she told me, "so I maxed out my limit after being encouraged to do so by my chef. That gave me enough cash to pay rent for three months." She told me she felt lucky to be working for a bigger company at the time. "I know a lot of people in the industry didn't have a resource like that," she said.

Now that masks are back with a circulating Delta variant, many people (conveniently) forget that showing up to physical work still means putting yourself at risk.

"We are all worried, serving people as COVID-19 spikes have come and gone all year," a former colleague told me about her current café job, where she works the counter. "My boss has wanted things to get back to 'normal' immediately and started indoor dining the day it could come back, and lowered restrictions as soon as he could without asking the staff how they felt."

Even after a year of pandemic horrors, compassion didn't blossom with the clientele she served. "The amount of complaints and overall disrespect that some people treated us with, when we were risking our safety and doing everything right for them while they chose to eat out, really shocked me," she said.

She's now found a new position in a fine-dining kitchen as a pastry cook, with promises for growth. "I miss baking for people and I miss a busy dinner service with a kitchen full of comrades," she said, adding, "I definitely do think that I have had to defend my worth and fight for what I know I deserve upon receiving this new job, whereas I might not have felt that way before the pandemic and would have not fought for a specific pay, hours, or benefits."

It seems like two things are happening: either employees aren't returning, or they're coming back with a greater sense of worth.

"Every restaurant in the city is hiring, so it feels like a unique opportunity to learn something new," one restaurant worker told me of her current job search in NYC. "I guess with restaurants trying to rebuild, they are promising the moon. I'm not sure how they'll be able to sustain labor costs long term, but I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts."

She says she's heard of pastry cook positions offering $22 an hour to start. "Now that I've gotten used to making more than pre-pandemic, I don't feel like taking a pay cut. That extra $300-400 a month makes a huge difference."

This is a good thing: when workers recognize their value and have the power to make demands, change happens. In this equation, it's the workplaces that have to get competitive. Will restaurants get the hint that living wages, health insurance, and vacation pay aren't luxuries? Will restaurant guests understand that their meal might cost more, in order to provide a proper life for the person making it? Will all the people doing the real work -- the dishwashers, the porters, the prep cooks, the line cooks, the bussers, the servers, the undocumented workers with little to no bargaining power -- finally be recognized as the people who run this industry, instead of the chefs and owners that ride on their shoulders?

Everyone I know who's returned to a restaurant job has done so because restaurants are where they have experience, training, talent, and passion. I hope they find an industry not only ready for but actively pursuing change, and one that appreciates and rewards their dedication.

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