Published July 6, 2021
As eager diners flock back to their favorite restaurants, businesses face a new challenge—a lack of workers to keep up with renewed demand. But, many restaurant workers are unwilling to return to work due to stress and financial instability.
The current labor shortage is likely to continue, particularly due to extended unemployment benefits. Restaurants need to consider and empathize with the very real factors that are keeping employees at home and away from work. Those that pivot their recruitment and retention strategies will be the ones that come out on top.
The pandemic emptied out offices and forced much of the world to transition to remote work— but restaurant employees didn’t have that luxury. They continued to show up, staff kitchens, and fulfill takeout requests despite the high risks of exposure. Restaurant owners and managers are concerned employees are unmotivated to work or just looking for a job on paper, but job seekers say that’s not the case. What they really want are wages that are worth the risk.
Health concerns remain
The spread of COVID-19 is slowing down in the U.S. as more people get vaccinated, but there’s still a risk to service workers. It’s not safe to assume everyone is comfortable jumping back into work.
A study by the University of California, San Francisco, found that food service workers were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They had the highest mortality rate of all the industries surveyed in the U.S. This is because, despite the lockdown, many restaurants still offered takeout and delivery, with back-of-house staff bearing the brunt of the risk.
Restaurant workers were economically vulnerable even before the pandemic. Today, inadequate compensation remains a barrier to come back to work. The Pew Research Center found that food service workers “earned only $394 per week on average” and little to no benefits. That’s less than half the average weekly earnings across all industries. This was in January 2020—before the pandemic.
A former restaurant worker said that even though she misses certain things about the work, the events of the past year have her unsure if she’ll ever return to the hospitality industry. In an interview with CNN, she said, “If this happened again, I would be at the same place. I don’t foresee ... a safety net for people like me.”
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the average annual earnings of employees in industries with less risk of COVID-19 exposure was $64,600. That’s 75 percent more than jobs with higher risks of exposure with average annual earnings of $36,600 and restaurant workers fall into the latter category.
Some restaurants are re-opening at reduced capacity, but fewer customers mean fewer tips for servers and bartenders. This means restaurant staff who do return to work have high risks of COVID-19 exposure while making less money than they were on unemployment.
At first glance, data indicating restaurant workers are financially insecure might suggest they’re among the most likely to return to work as soon as possible. However, research shows many are taking the pandemic as an opportunity to switch industries.
A Glassdoor study found that instead of returning to restaurants, employees are now looking for opportunities outside the industry. Some searches include Amazon, warehouse, supply chain, medical assistant, and work from home. These roles typically require a similar skillset to foodservice but offer more financial and health security.
Improving benefits for existing employees might cost a bit more, but hiring a whole new staff is far more expensive. For restaurant owners, the cycle of attraction and hiring can be a constant, self-defeating loop. Although employee turnover rates might seem insignificant in the short term, some restaurants may be losing around $35,000 a year to it.
In many cases, raises alone won’t cut it. One restaurant owner said he offered 10 to 20 percent raises to back-of-house staff. This is despite his restaurant’s limited capacity to operate for the time being. However, he acknowledged it might not be enough to entice people to come back. This is why restaurateurs should concentrate on keeping long-term staff satisfied so they stick around.
Related: 6 ways to set your restaurant apart to attract great employees
When trying to attract new employees and retain existing ones, restaurateurs can implement models like open-book management. Open-book management encourages a culture of ownership and transparency, empowering employees by letting them in on how their work impacts restaurants’ performance.
Business owners should focus on retaining a great team and using that team to shake things up business-wise. Experiment with new revenue streams, change your opening hours, play with the menu—anything that will make for more sustainable profit margins. Take an innovation-led approach and try one of the many non-traditional employment models available to restaurateurs.
Related: Want to generate more revenue for your restaurant? Try these new revenue streams
With the current state of the labor market, employers need to refocus their efforts on keeping the employees they do have happy. This way, they won’t need to spend money hiring and training new staff and can focus on growing their business post-pandemic.
When restaurants treat their employees as disposable, they shouldn’t be surprised when those employees don’t stick around. For that reason, restaurants should consider benefits that are standard for other industries, like paid sick leave, better health insurance, and a more sympathetic M.O. overall. Focus on creating a better work environment and developing a clear growth plan as key retention incentives for employees.