A wooden spoon gliding over cast iron. Barely tall enough to see over the stove, Lamar Cornett watched his mother, a cook, make his favorite dish of scrambled eggs.
That first cooking lesson launched a lifelong journey in food. Cornett has spent over 20 years in Kentucky restaurants, doing every job short of being the owner. The work is grueling and tense but rewarding and rowdy, and so fast-paced that the pandemic shutdown was like lightning on a cloudy day.
“It was almost like there was this unplanned, unorganized general strike,” Cornett said.
In those rare quiet moments, millions of restaurant workers such as Cornett found themselves thinking about the realities of their work. Breaks barely long enough to use the restroom or smoke a cigarette. Meals inhaled on the go. Hostile bosses, crazy schedules and paltry, stagnant pay.
To top it off: rude customers, whose abuses restaurant staff are often forced to tolerate. And lately, testy diners have only gotten more impatient as they emerge from the pandemic shutdowns.
Cornett, off work for a few weeks, realized he received enough money through unemployment benefits to start saving — for the first time. He wondered if the work he loves would ever entail a job that came with health insurance or paid leave.
“I was working what I decided was going to be my last kitchen job,” Cornett said.
As he pondered a new career path, an exodus began rattling his industry. Workers have been leaving jobs in restaurants, bars and hotels at the highest rate in decades. Each month so far this year, around 5% of this massive workforce have called it quits. In May alone, that was 706,000 people.
And now “help wanted” signs are everywhere, with a staggering 1.2 million jobs unfilled in the industry, right when customers are crushing through the doors, ready to eat, drink and finally socialize.
“They’re just yelling the entire time”
Low wages are the most common reason people cite for leaving food service work. But in one recent survey, more than half of hospitality workers who’ve quit said no amount of pay would get them to return.
That’s because for many, leaving food service had a lot to do also with its high-stress culture: exhausting work, unreliable hours, no benefits and so many rude customers.