When the city shut down due to Covid-19 mandates last spring, Matt Bolus, executive chef of The 404 Kitchen in Nashville, had to get creative, as did many other restaurant owners.
He kept some of his core staff busy by preparing meals for the local food bank, hosting private dinners, and finding other ways to pay the bills.
“You were grabbing at every straw you could because you didn’t know when it was going to end,” he explained.
As the city reopened and mandates were lifted, Bolus saw an increase in the number of customers returning to the restaurant. However, he is now faced with a major challenge: staffing the kitchen to meet rising demand.
“Unfortunately, the labour pool remains more of a labour puddle,” he said.
The pandemic decimated the hospitality industry, which will lose 2.5 million jobs by 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Despite the fact that restaurants added jobs in 2021, the unemployment rate for restaurant workers remains higher than the national average. Despite the high unemployment rate in the hospitality industry, many restaurants are still struggling to fill positions.
According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly half of all restaurants are operating with 20% fewer employees than usual.
Furthermore, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings in lodging and food service increased to nearly 1 million in March.
While there has been discussion about the long-term shortage of restaurant workers, some point to the increased unemployment benefits.
“If you talk to any restaurateurs, they’ll tell you that a lot of their workforce is making more money because of the stimulus to stay home,” said Jean Chick, U.S. restaurant and food service leader at Deloitte in Chicago.
Others, however, blame systemic problems that have afflicted the restaurant industry for years.
“The places that want to stick with the old model of no benefits, low wages, and poor working conditions are having the most difficulty attracting staff,” said Teofilo Reyes, chief programme officer at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit that advocates for restaurant workers.
Leaving the business
While the pandemic exacerbated staffing issues, restaurant worker shortages existed prior to Covid, according to Bolus.
As the city welcomed a flood of new establishments, restaurateurs in Nashville faced stiff competition for talent. According to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., 112 new restaurants, bars, or cafes opened in 2019, marking the third year in a row with more than 100 openings.
“In the 26 years I’ve been doing this, it might have been the most difficult two-year hiring period I’ve seen,” Bolus said.
Nashville isn’t the only city that had to deal with a labour shortage in the hospitality industry prior to the pandemic.
“We’ve been in what the press has called a ‘hospitality staffing crisis’ for over a decade,” said Ben Ellsworth, founder and CEO of GigPro, a Charleston, South Carolina-based on-demand hiring app.
After grappling with labour shortages for years, Charleston restaurants resorted to layoffs last March, laying off 65 percent of the city’s 28,000 restaurant workers by mid-April 2020, according to College of Charleston estimates.
Many workers looked for work elsewhere as they struggled to pay their bills. According to Ellsworth, some employees found higher-paying jobs with landscaping or construction companies.
Prior to the pandemic, experienced line cooks in Charleston earned $15 to $16 per hour. With one-bedroom apartments in the area costing more than $1,000 per month, it’s easy to see why some workers have left the industry, he says.
Many workers haven’t felt safe returning to work because of health concerns, according to William Dissen, executive chef and owner of Haymaker in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Restaurant workers, particularly those in small kitchens, have been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. According to a study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, line cooks may have been among the highest in terms of worker mortality from March to October 2020.
Burned-out restaurant workers may have taken advantage of the opportunity to pursue other career options after mass layoffs across the country, according to Ellsworth.
According to a survey of 2,000 line cooks conducted by staffing firm Mis en Place, more than one-quarter of kitchen workers have left the industry permanently. Some employees cited low pay and long hours as reasons for leaving.
However, one-third of those polled say they intend to return but haven’t done so yet for a variety of reasons, including looking for the right opportunity (20%), Covid concerns (7%), and unemployment benefits or stimulus checks (6 percent ).
Apps for on-demand hiring
Despite the fact that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper recently lifted restrictions, many operators have failed to staff restaurants to full capacity, according to Dissen, who also owns The Market Place in Asheville and Billy D’s Fried Chicken in Asheboro.
Restaurateurs frequently use Craigslist to find workers, but there hasn’t been enough response recently to meet rising demand, he says.
“Since reopening to 75 percent and 100 percent, we’ve had a lot of trouble,” Dissen said. “I run advertisements almost every day.”
Dissen has turned to GigPro, an on-demand hiring app, to fill temporary needs such as line cooks or dishwashers as the industry continues to face increased worker shortages.
“It’s been absolutely incredible for our business [in Charlotte] to be able to fill the gaps when we need it,” he said.
Last-minute workers may be compensated more generously by managers. For example, if a dishwasher’s standard hourly rate is $15 per hour, they may offer to pay $20 per hour on GigPro. Dissen stated.
“I literally filled gigs at our restaurant within 5 minutes of posting,” he explained.
According to Bolus, who has hired a few people through the app, the app also allows managers and employees to try out for a shift together before committing to a full-time position.
“They have a chance to shine, or they have a chance to leave,” he said.
The disadvantages of on-demand hiring apps
On-demand hiring apps, however, may have some drawbacks, according to labour advocates.
“The biggest disadvantage is that you’ll be treated as an independent contractor,” Reyes explained. “This means you’re not entitled to the few labour protections provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Another potential shortcoming, according to him, is the increased risk of race or gender discrimination based on the worker’s profile pictures in the app.
“I believe this is something to keep an eye on,” Reyes said.
Nonetheless, some restaurateurs believe that changes to the hiring and recruiting processes are a good thing.
“I believe these kinds of applications are just getting started, and I believe they have the potential to revolutionise how we all work,” Bolus said.
According to Chick, another trend in the hiring process is paying applicants to show up for interviews.
“They’re saying, ‘We’ll actually give you $50 cash just to show up for the interview,’ and then it’s up to the restaurant owner to sell them on taking the job,” she explained.
Some hiring managers have noticed a shift in the dynamic between owners and workers as they test new recruiting strategies.
“I think there’s been a sort of reckoning in the restaurant industry,” Dissen said.
As restaurants examine their operations, some steps may be taken to “level the playing field” between owners and employees, he said.
But, he admits, it will look different for each restaurant, depending on long-term debt, products sold, and employee pay.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of deep questions and possibly sleepless nights trying to figure out what the answer is,” Dissen said. “But I believe that’s how you stay relevant in the future.”
Source: Kelli LaMatia