After eight years in the restaurant industry, Estefanía decided she’d had enough. Last summer, she quit her job at a New American restaurant in Chicago where she had worked as a manager and sommelier since 2017. Estefanía, who asked to be referred to by her first name because she is an undocumented worker, said she got COVID-19 in June and took two weeks off to recover and quarantine. When she came back, she noticed a shift in the way her employers treated her. “I came back to be given the silent treatment from the owner,” she told me via email. “He said I abandoned him and that he couldn’t trust me [or] see me as a manager anymore.”
Estefanía said the last straw was when a coworker threatened to call ICE on her. She quit the restaurant, got a job as a receptionist, and thought she was done with the restaurant industry altogether. But the pay couldn’t compare to what she was making before, so now, she’s back. Despite her hesitancy to return to the industry, Estefanía just started working at a Mexican restaurant in Logan Square, which she describes as a better experience than her last job.
The fact that Estefanía quit restaurant work and returned makes her a COVID-era rarity. For months, restaurateurs across the country have been sounding the alarm about an industry-wide labor shortage. Managers of small, independent restaurants and big national chains alike have told the press they’re having trouble getting longtime staff to return to their jobs or finding new employees to replace them. Managers and owners are largely blaming their inability to retain — or even re-hire — staff on expanded unemployment benefits designed to mitigate the economic devastation of the pandemic; claims that “no one wants to work” because they’d rather stay home and cash unemployment checks have become commonplace, even though they aren’t entirely accurate.
Matt Glassman, the owner of the Greyhound Bar & Grill in Los Angeles, said unemployment has made it harder to rehire staff, but added that it’s more complicated than people not wanting to work. Glassman’s restaurant has been closed since last summer and will reopen in May at reduced capacity. For servers and bartenders, fewer patrons means less tips — which means that they’re putting their health at risk while making less money than they would on unemployment. Glassman said he pays servers and bartenders $15 an hour before tips, and that before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for a bartender’s hourly wage to come out to $50 or $60 after tips. “Now that number is going to be closer to $25 to $30,” Glassman said.
The dangers are even more acute for back-of-house staff, like line cooks and dishwashers. “We do a ton of business out of a 400-square-foot kitchen,” Glassman said. “There’s no mask in the world that’s going to protect you from being next to someone for eight hours a day in that hot environment.” Even with vaccinations on the rise, plenty of people remain scared to go back to grueling restaurant jobs. A February study from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that line cooks had the highest mortality rate during the height of the pandemic in the U.S. Even when cities were under “lockdown,” plenty of restaurants were open for takeout and delivery, and back-of-house staff were bearing the brunt of the labor and the risk.
Glassman said he’s offered 10 to 20 percent raises for back-of-house staff, but acknowledges that it may not be enough to entice people to come back. At the same time, he said it’s difficult for him to raise wages more than he already has, since the restaurant will be operating at limited capacity for the foreseeable future.
When Isaac Furman quit his job as a line cook in early 2020 to go back to school, he assumed it would be a temporary break from the industry. “I haven’t been back since,” he said, “because I can’t really trust any restaurant owners to provide a safe environment for their employees.”
Before quitting, Furman, who had worked in restaurant kitchens for seven years, thought he’d have a long — and hopefully fruitful — career as a cook. “I always figured I’d be an industry lifer,” he said. “I never harbored any illusions about it being easy per se, but I liked the idea of being part of the community… Restaurant ownership was the ultimate goal.”
Time away from the industry made him realize how disillusioned he had become with the industry, which he described as unsustainable and exploitative, especially in places with a high cost of living, like New York City. “By the time I was 26 at my last place, I was one of the oldest cooks in the kitchen,” he said. After he aged out of his parents’ health insurance, the subsidized insurance his work offered him was around $500 a month — which he could hardly afford with his wages. “Health care is a big part of this. The total lack of ability to raise a family while working on the line is, too. But there’s also the physical toll,” he added. “I had a foot injury once and couldn’t work for a week. What happens if it was longer than that? There’s absolutely no safety net, and every day you feel worse and worse.”
Furman said these problems aren’t limited to any one restaurant or city; they’re industry-wide. Nearly two million restaurant and bar workers lost their jobs between March and April 2020, when cities across the country first began shutting down due to the pandemic. The wave of re-openings and subsequent shutterings that came with ever-changing regulations and individual exposures meant that, in many cases, restaurants were laying off and re-hiring their staff cyclically. Fed up by the instability, some restaurant workers found jobs in other industries and didn’t look back.
Those who have decided to stick it out have more choices than ever before. Joseph Tiedmann, an executive chef in New Orleans, said the problem isn’t just that people aren’t applying to jobs, but that there are more open jobs than there are applicants. “The number of responses [to job listings] has definitely decreased but when we reach out to applicants, we’re way less successful in actually getting a hold of people or getting them to actually come in for interviews,” Tiedmann said. “There’s such a wide selection of restaurants to work at right now. If someone is looking for a job and they use Indeed or use Culinary Agent to put a resume out there, they’re going to get a ton of responses. They have so many choices, they’re bombarded by calls for interviews and may not have time to respond to all of them, or they might take the one that looks most favorable to them.”
Tiedmann said he’s offered pay increases to current staff members and higher starting wages for new employees, but hiring has still been difficult. If there’s any bright side to the current labor situation, he added, it’s that it’s causing owners and hiring managers to reevaluate everything from wages to company culture — and for consumers who spent the last year praising essential workers to realize they need to be paying more for their food.
“I think we’re at a point where people are like, ‘We’re going to have to raise our prices, because we need to pay our employees more money, and we need to offer them benefits when we can,’” Tiedmann said. “We need to make this an attractive business to work in. At the end of the day, it’s all about being able to do more for your employees. But in order to do that, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow.”
For those who have never worked in food service, the changes restaurant workers are asking for may not seem like much. But those who have been in the industry for a long time know how resistant many bosses are to change. Tara, a cook in the Washington, DC area who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her identity while she looks for work, said the pandemic has made her realize what her non-negotiables are. “I refuse to take [a job] that’s the minimum serving wage. I need a place that’s at least minimum wage plus tips,” she said. “We are so sick and tired of [restaurant owners] assuming we want a handout. We want to work, but we also want to be treated like human beings. We haven’t been for way too long.”
Gaby del Valle is a freelance reporter who primarily covers immigration and labor.