(Gray News) – As many parts of the country start to phase in reopening plans, it’s still a long way from things returning to normal.
Restaurant owners said they are struggling to find people willing to work.
“We have a war of survival, a new war of survival,” restaurant owner Philippe Massoud said.
He said he never thought he’d be facing a shortage of restaurant workers in the middle of the pandemic.
“We have no staff to open for lunch at all,” he said.
Dining in the U.S. is at about 90% of pre-pandemic levels, according to Open Table, and nearly 8.5 million Americans are still out of work.
But Massoud said he can’t find anyone to fill 15 open positions from manager to dishwasher.
“Normally you get at least 30, 40, 50 people, 60 people. We only had three people respond to our ads and none of them showed up,” he said.
In January, 7% of restaurant operators named recruitment and retention as their top challenge. By April, that number was 57%.
One issue: Some employees have left the restaurant industry for good amid the perils of the pandemic, which exposed workers to the coronavirus and uncooperative patrons.
A new study, not yet peer reviewed, found that excess deaths in California from March through October 2020 were highest among food and agriculture workers.
In addition, tipped food workers in several states are paid less than minimum wage – $2.13 an hour in 16 states – with the expectation that credit from tips would help them reach or exceed minimum wage. If that minimum isn’t reached, the employer is expected to pitch in.
Former food service employee John Jasieniecki quit in January after 16 years as a server and bartender.
“I had intended on being a lifer,” he said.
But with unstable pay and after contracting COVID-19, he knew it was time for a career change.
“COVID was very stressful. Yelling at people to put on their masks is not what I want to do every day,” he said.
Low pay and COVID health risks were two of the most popular reasons for leaving the restaurant industry, according to a University of Berkeley study.
Jasieniecki now works in maintenance for several high rises in downtown Denver.
“It’s a different world. I’m working nine to five, as opposed to five to two,” he said.
Restaurants in Miami have been at 100% indoor capacity since October of last year, but Carlos Gazitua said he doesn’t have enough staff to open his dining room.
“Florida is a bellwether state. We’ve been open a lot longer than many states in the United States, so this is coming to the theater near you,” he said.
And he says it’s only getting worse. He can’t fill more than 30% of his positions – even after raising wages.
Operators found clever ways to survive last year, and their actions confirm 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry trend data.
— National Restaurant Association (@WeRRestaurants) April 5, 2021
Gazitua claims the $300 weekly expanded unemployment benefit is stopping people from coming back to work.
But economics experts said expanded benefits play a smaller role in worker reluctance than one would think.
Workers are citing concerns about contracting COVID-19 and still being needed at home to take care of children as other stressors keeping them away from restaurant work, the New York Times reported.
The expanded unemployment benefits don’t expire until early September.
“People should keep the unemployment benefits if they go to work now and they commit to working to the end of the year,” Gazitua said.
“We’re supposed to go hire people to retain them, but at the same time you’re paying unemployment, it creates a conflict of interest, so to speak,” Massoud said.
Both restaurant owners are investing in technology to solve the problem. They’ve purchased robots.
Gazitua’s robot in Miami can serve and bus tables, while Massoud’s robot in New York will make salads.
Copyright 2021 Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved. CNN Newsource contributed to this report.