The restaurant industry sure took a hard hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many restaurants closed entirely, unable to keep up with rent payments during closures. Other restaurants continued to stay afloat thanks to a combination of funding sources. However, they were all eager for the day when they could re-open to full capacity. We’re just about there. And yet, restaurants are having a hard time finding employees. What is going on?
The Impact of COVID-19 on Restaurants
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, many cities shut down all of their restaurants. While some resumed service quickly, many kept their doors closed. Here in San Francisco, we only just began allowing indoor dining at partial capacity in recent weeks. While we expect to reach full indoor dining capacity in mid-June, it’s been more than a year of reduced indoor seating.
In order to stay open and survive the pandemic, restaurants had to take a variety of different measures. These included:
- Updating their to-go and delivery menus. Many places began offering to-go cocktails, new menu items, and family meals.
- Partnering with nearby bars to allow those bars to open as well. Bars in San Francisco remained closed until very recently. However, they could serve alcohol at a partner restaurant if they could find one.
- Applying for permits to allow outdoor dining. Here in San Francisco, many places opened outdoor dining parklets. They’ve been a wonderful addition to the city. However, building those cost money. They had to spend money in order to keep making money. And the
- Adapting their rules, guidelines, safety procedures, etc. in order to meet constantly-changing COVID-19 guidelines.
- Reducing staff in order to adjust to changing capacities and funding.
- Applying for grants, setting up Go Fund Me accounts, selling gift certificates and finding other sources of funding.
Many restaurants across the country closed their doors during the pandemic. Some will never open again. In fact, in 2020, over 110,000 restaurants shut down. Forbes reports that the restaurant industry lost $240 billion last year. Moreover, 2.5 million workers in the industry lost their jobs.
We’re Turning the Corner
As we reach the middle of 2021, we’re finally starting to see a positive change. Thanks to vaccines and a downtrend in cases, many areas in the country are able to re-open again. A lot of the restaurants that were struggling to hang on have seen a big surge in customers returning to dine with them.
New restaurants are opening. Old ones are coming back. Those that had been open at partial capacity are filling up again.
However, the restaurants obviously have to keep adapting. Those that had reduced staff due to reduced capacity now need to hire new people. Many people need jobs. And yet, restaurants are having a hard time finding employees. In fact, just when business started bustling again, some restaurants had to close their doors because they simply didn’t have the staff to meet the demand.
There Are Just Too Many Jobs Available
Yes, 2.5 million people lost their jobs in the restaurant industry last year. However, some of those people managed to find new ways to make money since then. And those that are looking for jobs have a whole lot of options to choose from. It’s the first time in history that we can think of when thousands upon thousands of restaurants are hiring all at once. If you have restaurant experience and want a job in the industry, you really have a lot of options to choose from.
People are indeed going out and getting those new restaurant jobs. The New York Times reports a steady increase in restaurant employment month upon month in 2021. Nevertheless, restaurant staffing remains significantly lower than it was pre-pandemic. There are still over one million fewer jobs filled in the business this year as compared to last. (Note that fast food staffing is lower than a year ago but not nearly as low as that of higher-end restaurants.)
So restaurants having a hard time finding employees is a simple situation of supply and demand. There are a lot of jobs. While some people want them, many of those people want to explore their options. Whereas they may have had only a few restaurant positions to choose from pre-pandemic, they now have their pick of places to apply. With so many openings, employees can be pickier about the jobs they take on.
There Are Other Jobs Available, Too
As aforementioned, some of those laid-off restaurant employees found other ways to make money during the pandemic. Perhaps they started their own businesses. Maybe they trained in a new field that allows them to work from home. In some cases, they spent the pandemic year going back to school. In other words, they have returned (or are returning) to work but not in the restaurant industry.
People Moved Away From Restaurant-Rich Areas
The big cities with the most restaurants are also some of the most expensive cities. When people lost their restaurant jobs, some decided to leave those cities. For example, a lot of people left San Francisco and New York. There was no reason to stay in a really expensive city without work available. If those people don’t choose to return to cities with a lot of restaurants, then they aren’t applying for those jobs. And if the people who remained in the cities have other job options, then they aren’t applying to the restaurants. So restaurants having a hard time finding employees makes a lot of sense, especially in those big cities.
Some People May Choose Unemployment
The New York Times article also argues that there are some people who simply don’t want to return to work if they don’t feel like they have to. People have received an unprecedented amount of unemployment income during this pandemic. In some cases, individuals may find that they make more money not working than they would if they chose to go back to work. Moreover, some of those people simply might not feel safe and ready to go back to restaurant work. After all, you have to interact with a lot of people who may or may not have been exposed to COVID.
Of course, there are rules about unemployment. You’re supposed to actively look for a job if you’re able to work. Obviously, there are restaurants hiring. Therefore, at some point, those people who choose unemployment over working may not have that option anymore. However, for the time being, it appears that a portion of those people aren’t returning to work, yet. This contributes to restaurants having a hard time finding employees.
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