COVID-19

Restaurants struggling to hire, despite high unemployment

Kristin Schwab Aug 27, 2020
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A chef prepares patrons' meals at a restaurant in Tampa, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images
COVID-19

Restaurants struggling to hire, despite high unemployment

Kristin Schwab Aug 27, 2020
Heard on:
A chef prepares patrons' meals at a restaurant in Tampa, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images
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Before COVID-19, the restaurant industry was already facing labor shortages. Now the low-wage work, plus the threat of exposure, are making it even tougher to find workers in some places.

Michelle Kaufman owns the Paddle Trap, a burgers and comfort food-type restaurant near Bismarck, North Dakota. She spends a part of her day, every day, posting jobs on Indeed. For every dozen interviews, she nets about one hire, and they’ll often last just a few shifts. When she asks why, they’ll say, “you know, I didn’t realize how many people I would be around every day, and I don’t want to take this home to my family,” Kaufman said.

The virus is hurting her bottom line. The staffing shortage is annoying potential customers who are eager to eat out.

“Guests will come in, and we’ll have to tell them that we’re on a 30-minute wait,” Kaufman said. “And they don’t understand why we’d be on a wait when we have empty tables.”

The restaurant industry came into the COVID crisis with a hiring problem. Lots of workers think of food jobs as transitional. Also, the food service industry was growing too fast, according to Eli Wilson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico who’s writing a book about restaurant labor.

“There already was more jobs to fill and not enough bodies willing to do this kind of work,” he said.

Another factor? A lot of people who do this work are on the extreme ends of the age spectrum. Many are older workers who are more susceptible to the virus. And many are younger people who live at home with parents. Alex Susskind directs the food and beverage institute at Cornell.

“The risks definitely outweigh the benefits for some of these folks,” Susskind said. “And if they need the money, they may be able to find other types of work that may be less risky.”

Possibly. Like retail or gig work, which can sometimes pay more than the average restaurant worker’s salary of $22,000 a year.

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