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Restaurants Struggle To Entice Workers Back As In-Person Dining Expands

People dine outside at a restaurant at Bryant Park in Manhattan on May 04, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Issues like lack of work visas, closed childcare facilities and workers citing low wages have made it hard for restaurants to get employees back to work as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

To say that 2020 hit the restaurant industry hard is an understatement. According to the National Restaurant Association, about 100,000 restaurants closed and 2.5 million jobs were lost. Now as some reopen, recruiting and hiring is proving to be a challenge. Across the country, as pandemic restrictions are being eased a new shortage is emerging —restaurant workers.

“Clearly, there’s a shortage. I would love to say, 'Oh they’re just flocking in and we’re fully staffed' — we’re not,” says chef Paul Bartolotta.

Bartolotta owns 16 Milwaukee-area restaurants. Last year he furloughed workers in all his restaurants, except for essential staff. Many of those workers began collecting unemployment benefits.

Now, he’s trying to rebuild. Bartolotta says that over the past couple of weeks, they’ve held a handful of successful job fairs but haven’t yet hired enough people to allow his restaurants to resume regular hours.

“Normally, we had many restaurants that were seven days lunch and dinner. At the moment, my restaurants are five dinners, all the restaurants are closed at lunch but one that does Saturdays and Sundays brunch along the lakefront,” he says.

There are lots of reasons hiring has become such a problem. One is that people like Nate Northway have found other careers. At the age of 27, he’s spent nearly half his life working in the industry.

“I was a cashier at Culver's. I was a fry boy at Wendy’s. I was a shift manager at Jimmy John’s. I was a line cook at multiple different places,” he explains.

Northway says low pay and fears over COVID-19 exposure pushed him to change careers.

He now spends his days at home with his two cats, Cowboy Dan and Tanner, where he works as a web developer. While he says he misses the daily interactions with lots of people, he doesn’t expect to ever return to a restaurant job.

“If I need to run an errand, I can run out and do that. I’m not tied down per se. I’m making twice as much money as I did. There’s health insurance and other benefits. It’s a really good job,” he says.

Extended Interview With Wisconsin Restaurant Association President Kristine Hillmer

Kristine Hillmer heads the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. She says when you account for tips, a lot of restaurant workers are earning more than double the federal minimum wage.

“On average across this country, servers are making between $19 and $24 an hour. So there is money to be had. And in addition to that, especially for somebody that’s looking for flexibility — there’s flexibility built within the restaurant industry,” she says.

Hillmer says that while some former restaurant workers found jobs outside of the industry, there are other stumbling blocks — things like visa issues, schools and daycares not being open and even the additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits many people are now getting.

She voices concern that some former restaurant workers are only working part-time to continue to qualify for some government assistance instead of taking on full-time work.

“We know of many cases, we’ve talked to some of our operators that they’ve got staff that are calculating. It’s like, 'OK, I can work this many hours, still qualify for partial unemployment and I still get that $300,'” she says.

Industry analysts predict that ultimately many restaurants will have to pay employees more, both to lure them back and to keep them as restaurants try to reestablish themselves.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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