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Facing restaurant labor issues around the holidays

Published October 29, 2021

When it comes to employment and staffing, the holiday season from November to January is a notoriously challenging period for restaurant owners and managers. Though there’s typically an uptick in available holiday workers when the younger workforce is on break from high school and college, restaurants have to compete with other employers like retail shops to obtain this influx of workers.

Compared to other high seasons like summer, the holidays can be challenging for managers looking to plan far out in advance. Restaurants especially have seen a rise in customers’ desire to dine in on major holidays like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve. So how does the management department go about staffing enough workers on the holidays that most employees want to request off?

Below are some factors behind the labor shortage and suggestions for better managing the workforce challenges that the holiday season often brings. 

Provide what the labor market is looking for

In general, the holidays aren't ordinary business days for restaurants. There are more customers during holiday periods than at any other time of the year. Luckily, there are more people in the available workforce seeking part-time, hourly pay during the winter holiday months. This available market is historically characterized by 16- to 23-year-olds looking for extra income during school breaks.

What’s the best way to attract this demographic to work for your business during the holidays? Is it by offering discounts and sales at their favorite retail boutiques? If so, restaurants would be at a disadvantage. A study by Restaurant Business gives us an example—most seasonal workers valued flexible working hours compared to store discounts (66% responded that they’d prefer to work less than 25 hours per week).

To attract this pool of available holiday workers, restaurants should market the fact that they can accommodate candidates’ desire for flexible working hours. If you include more information like this in your holiday job postings, your restaurant can expect an uptick in applications as flexible hours is important to this target workforce.

Related: 6 ways to set your restaurant apart to attract great employees

Plan ahead to avoid scheduling issues

So you have a plan to recruit a solid workforce and address the holiday months, but how do you build your schedule to prevent staffing gaps while also accommodating your employees’ personal calendar requests?

First, the larger employee base should help supervisors accommodate time off requests and potential no-shows because they have a larger pool of available co-workers. So, think about the minimum number of workers or hours worked that you need for coverage during the holiday season.

Next, consider your training timeline to ensure you have enough lead time to train your new employees prior to the holiday rush. For example, consider having supervisors train your college-age employees when they’re home over Thanksgiving break so they can hit the ground running when they’re back home in December. Planning ahead for training helps prevent potential hiccups and also alleviates the need to double up on employees for training purposes.  

Finally, restaurants should strive to create their holiday schedules as far in advance as possible.

Ask your employees to request their time off by a certain date. Utilize your digital labor management software to see available workers and hours worked. Build a projected holiday schedule with a few backup workers slotted for each shift so you can determine your coverage for the whole holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. Procrastination is not good for your mental health or your employees' mental health, particularly when it comes to restaurant staffing and scheduling around the holiday. Address those concerns in advance and be proactive! 

Compensate creatively with holiday pay

Because the holiday season can be a time many employees opt to take off, it can be hard to incentivize them to work during the busiest days.

Successful restaurants should develop an attractive overtime pay structure during the holiday to provide employees. To make your hourly employees feel valued, consider offering overtime on major holidays or providing bonuses or benefits for those willing to work above a certain number of hours.

A restaurant might also consider guaranteeing personal days that workers can request during a holiday on top of planned days off. It’s important to communicate incentives or benefits in writing so that your current staff and new employees have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them and what they can expect to receive in return.

The holidays are a competitive time for attracting good talent and encouraging employees to be at their best. Restaurant managers that take the extra step to make their employees feel valued and hear their concerns tend to triumph in the competition for seasonal workers. 

How will the labor shortage affect the consumer experience at restaurants during the holidays?

Staffing restaurants during the holiday season is already a challenge due to employee time-off requests, no shows and competing retail job opportunities for seasonal workers. But given the national labor shortage, staffing might be even more of a challenge than usual.

As we shift toward a new normal, consumers will also be more inclined to eat out. This trend is expected to continue unabated into the holiday months. We might see a reprieve in the labor shortage as we approach winter, with restaurants having access to more job-seekers and support. This could address any potential holiday-related staffing challenges.

Being proactive in hiring more staff will help ensure you have a healthy roster leading into the holidays. Consider implementing an employee referral program with your existing team members. This can serve as an extra incentive that’s more attractive around the holiday season.

The holidays aren’t ordinary business days. They’ll likely continue to be a challenging staffing period for restaurants. However, by leveraging a few simple strategies, restaurant managers can mitigate any potential staffing risks while keeping margins high and sales up. By marketing flexible working hours and being proactive about recruiting, training and scheduling, small businesses can set themselves apart from their competitors.

With attractive holiday pay incentives that can support, encourage and retain employees, restaurants can position themselves as preferred employers among seasonal job-seekers.

Further, with the national labor shortage expected to abate in the coming months, restaurants can plan for a better holiday season in 2021 than they did last year.

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