Like many restaurant owners, Matt Bolus, executive chef of The 404 Kitchen in Nashville, had to get creative when the city shut down due to Covid-19 mandates last spring.
He kept some of his core staff busy by cooking meals for the local food bank, private dinners and other opportunities to pay the bills.
“You were just truly grabbing at every straw you could because you didn’t know when the end was,” he said.
As the city opened back up and mandates vanished, Bolus saw an influx of guests returning to the restaurant. But now he faces a huge challenge: staffing the kitchen to meet rising demand.
“The labor pool is still, unfortunately, more of a labor puddle,” he said.
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The pandemic gutted the hospitality industry, which shed 2.5 million jobs in 2020, the National Restaurant Association reported.
Although restaurants have added jobs in 2021, the unemployment rate for restaurant workers is still above the national average. But despite the jobless rates in hospitality, many restaurants are still stretched to find workers.
Almost half of establishments are operating with 20% less staff than usual, the National Restaurant Association found.
Moreover, accommodations and food service job openings spiked to nearly 1 million in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While there have been debates over the prolonged restaurant worker shortages, some point to the enhanced unemployment benefits.
“If you talk to any restaurateurs, they will tell you that a lot of their workforce is making more money with the stimulus to stay home,” said Jean Chick, U.S. restaurant and food service leader at Deloitte in Chicago.
But others blame systemic issues that have plagued the restaurant industry for years.
“The places that want to continue the old model of no benefits, low wages and poor working conditions are having the most trouble bringing in staff,” said Teofilo Reyes, chief program officer at Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a non-profit advocating for restaurant workers.
Leaving the industry
While the pandemic heightened staffing issues, restaurant worker shortages were a problem before Covid, Bolus said.
In Nashville, restaurateurs grappled with stiff competition for talent as the city welcomed a surge of new establishments. There were 112 new restaurants, bars or cafes in 2019, the third consecutive year of more than100 openings, according to the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
“In the 26 years that I’ve been doing this, it might have been the roughest two-year patch that I’ve seen for hiring,” Bolus said.
Nashville isn’t the only city that coped with a tight hospitality labor market pre-pandemic.
“We’ve been in what the press has called a ‘hospitality staffing crisis’ for over a decade,” said Ben Ellsworth, founder and CEO at GigPro, an on-demand hiring app based in Charleston, South Carolina.
After wrestling with worker shortfalls for years, Charleston restaurants veered to layoffs last March, cutting 65% of the city’s 28,000 restaurant workers by mid-April 2020, according to estimates from the College of Charleston.
As workers scrambled to pay the bills, many looked for jobs elsewhere. Some employees found higher-paying jobs with landscaping or construction companies, Ellsworth said.
Pre-pandemic, experienced line cooks in Charleston were making $15 or $16 per hour. With one-bedroom apartments renting for more than $1,000 per month in the area, it’s easy to see why some workers have left the industry, he said.
Health risks have also impacted the shortage, as many workers haven’t felt safe returning to work, said William Dissen, executive chef and owner of Haymaker in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Restaurant workers, especially those working in a small kitchen, have been vulnerable during the pandemic. Line cooks may have been among the highest for worker mortality from March to October 2020, a study from the University of California, San Francisco found.