Help Wanted: Labor Crisis Affects US Restaurant Industry


LOS ANGELES >> Sherry Villanueva’s Santa Barbara family of restaurants employed 350 people before the pandemic took hold and darkened dining rooms across California. Now, with the official reopening of the state economy, around 250 workers have returned to work.

Villanueva would hire 100 more if she could – but she can’t find people to take the openings.

“We are in the midst of a very serious labor shortage,” said Villanueva, owner and managing partner of Acme Hospitality, which operates eight restaurants in the popular seaside destination, although two remain closed. With sticks stretched out like a paper towel, employees “do two people ‘s work.”

California completely reopened its economy on June 15 and removed capacity limits at restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. People are eager to come back to sporting events and amusement parks and enjoy a restaurant meal.

But instead of full dining rooms, many restaurants are forced to reduce opening hours or leave tables open. Villanueva’s company offers cash bonuses to workers who recruit new employees.

The labor shortage is also affecting restaurants in the United States

The National Restaurant Association reported that the restaurant industry shed 2.5 million jobs in 2020. Federal data indicates nearly 1.4 million vacant positions in the restaurant and hospitality industry in April.

At Served Global Dining in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, chef-owner Matthew Meyer said he needed a dozen or more people to fill positions at all levels, including cooks. and bartenders.

Plans for a raw seafood bar, take-out kits, and a chef’s table to serve special tasting menus are on hold as it can’t find enough workers. Meanwhile, its labor costs have increased by a third as it has to offer more money to attract applicants. Even then, the last two he had scheduled for interviews never showed up.

“We are having extreme difficulties,” he said.

Sam Toia, CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said he has started discussing with federal lawmakers the possibility of expanding work visa programs for the restaurant industry to open a new pipeline labor.

And without enough workers to fill shifts, restaurants are warning customers to expect longer-than-normal waits for their meals, Toia said.

The California Restaurant Association previously estimated that one-third of restaurants in the state would not survive the pandemic. For those who survived, the lack of jobs is a “crisis in its own right,” said Jot Condie, who heads the organization.

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom likes to say California’s economy is booming. Indeed, employment figures released on Friday showed the state created more than 100,000 jobs in May, the fourth consecutive month of gains after 2.7 million jobs disappeared in the first few months of the pandemic.

But in the state’s battered restaurant industry, the return to normalcy is being slowed down by the struggle to find sufficient numbers of cooks, bartenders, waiters, and kitchen staff. Since May 2020, restaurants and hotels have created 420,400 jobs – the most of any industry – but the industry remains around 450,000 jobs below its pre-pandemic level.

In Los Angeles, Caroline Styne, owner and wine director of the Lucca group, turned down dozens of customers because she didn’t have the staff to serve them, leaving seats empty.

“If you can’t fill your seats… several times a night, the restaurant’s financial structure isn’t working,” Styne said.

“Hiring is a nightmare,” she added. “I have never been in such a situation.

The industry is notoriously volatile, and restaurant workers can be in transit – from students moving in and out of shifts if time permits, aspiring actors and musicians looking to supplement their income, kitchen workers leaving for work. higher wages elsewhere. Hours can be long, benefits scarce, and wages low, sometimes dependent on tips.

Styne, Villanueva and other industry experts see a set of factors conspiring to create the scarcity of job seekers.

Among them: California’s population fell by 182,000 last year as the pandemic ravaged the economy, scattering workers across the country as many businesses closed. Some workers are reluctant to return, either out of lingering fear of the virus or because of frayed nerves after struggling with intermittent shutdowns, home isolation and changing health regulations.

Extended federal unemployment benefits have provided a cushion for staying home – around 2 million people are still receiving checks. In other cases, there is a problem with childcare with closed schools or recess for the summer. And after a long hiatus from work to think about the future, others have embarked on a new career.

Restaurants and hotels have been the “zero point” of the labor shortage, but other sectors are struggling to fill jobs, including non-union construction and home health care, said Michael Bernick, former director of the California Employment Development Department and lawyer. with the Duane Morris law firm.

For struggling restaurants, a turning point may not come until late summer, when improved federal benefits end and schools reopen. Even then, wages might have to increase to attract workers.

On Saturday, Alec Nedelman was enjoying an early Father’s Day celebration with his family at one of Styne’s AOC restaurants in Los Angeles. The lawyer said he had just started returning to restaurants since the dining halls began to reopen and was also anxious to have them available for business meetings.

“It’s still a mixed feeling. You’re still a little cautious and worried, ”Nedelman said. But “I can’t wait to be able to be social again. “

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