Restaurant Workers in Short Supply as Cities Reopen

(AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

One of the greatest tragedies of the pandemic has been the permanent closing of many restaurants, large and small, from famous eateries to neighborhood bistros. The entire restaurant industry has absorbed some heavy hits with over 110,000 closings in 2020 alone.


Some favorites will never come back; others won’t fully recover. But eventually, those still in business will start rehiring workers that were laid off. And that’s a problem because as states lift restrictions on capacity and indoor dining, all these restaurants want to hire workers for the expanded business.

Since they’re all doing it at once, a shortage of skilled restaurant workers has emerged that threatens to put a crimp in their recovery.


The big picture: Millions of restaurants are hiring all at once and, after a deadly pandemic, the jobs of waiters, cooks, and hosts seem more dangerous than they ever have before. All of this is contributing to a nationwide hospitality worker shortage as the economy opens back up.

By the numbers: The pandemic wiped out 2.5 million restaurant jobs and forced more than 100,000 eateries to shutter. And now the ones that made it through 2020 can’t find staffers.

According to Census survey data from early April, a whopping 37% of small businesses in the hospitality and food sectors say their operating ability was affected by worker availability. When looking at all small businesses, the statistic was just 16%.

“After a whole year of waiting, guests are clamoring to come back. And restaurants have invested in these expanded outdoor areas, and they need people right now,” says Alice Cheng, founder of Culinary Agents, a hospitality job search site. “But they’re not finding them.”


With everyone reopening at the same time, everyone is hiring at the same time. But a problem is that many pre-pandemic workers have left the industry entirely for other jobs or have entered job training programs. There were more part-time workers in the restaurant industry than anywhere else and now that may change.

Wages may rise as competition for employees stiffens. Restaurants are already starting to offer referral and retention bonuses to attract talent. And workers can be choosier and seek out more pay or better health benefits.

No one really knows what the industry will look like post-pandemic. It will likely be smaller and leaner with fewer workers. Americans were already demonstrating less enthusiasm for sit-down restaurants. That’s a trend that will likely continue as businesses discovered they could be profitable going to a takeout/delivery operation.


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