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‘The final straw’: How the pandemic pushed restaurant workers over the edge

Jim Conway, 64, retired last year after almost 40 years working in restaurants, most recently at an Olive Garden outside of Pittsburgh. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)
9 min

Jim Conway started working in restaurants in 1982, making $2.13 an hour, plus tips.

And though the world has changed significantly in the nearly 40 years since then, his hourly wage has not. At the Olive Garden outside of Pittsburgh where he worked when the pandemic hit last year, he was making $2.83 an hour, the minimum wage for tipped workers in Pennsylvania, plus tips.

So after being furloughed for months last spring, Conway, 64, decided to retire.

Being paid the rough equivalent of a chocolate bar an hour from the chain was little incentive for him to stick it out longer in the industry after so many years, especially with tips no longer a reliable source of income and lingering health concerns about covid-19.

“The main issue for me was safety,” Conway said. “There are lots of people who don’t want to participate in the old ways.”

Conway is one of the millions of workers who left the restaurant industry during the pandemic and haven’t come back. The industry has 1.7 million fewer jobs filled than before the pandemic, despite posting almost a million job openings in March, along with hotels, and raising pay 3.6 percent, an average of 58 cents an hour, in the first three months of 2021.

Restaurant chains and industry groups say a shortage of workers like Conway is slowing their recovery, as the sector tries to get back on its feet amid sinking covid cases, falling restrictions and resurgent demand in many areas around the country.

What are Americans making for dinner? Reservations.

The issue has quickly become political, with Republicans blaming the labor crunch on the Biden administration’s move to boost federal unemployment insurance supplement, which has been a central part of the government’s response to the pandemic for most of the past year. GOP leaders and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say the extra unemployment insurance is a disincentive for some workers to return to work.

In interviews with The Washington Post, 10 current and former workers expressed a wide range of reasons they are or were reluctant to return to work. Some, like Conway, have left the industry or changed careers, saying they felt like the industry was no longer worth the stress and volatility.

Others said jobs that didn’t pay enough for them to make ends meet no longer felt appropriate to them. Others left after disputes with managers — over issues around safety and pay — and other flash points that have emerged in the past year.

All described the pandemic as an awakening — realizing that long-held concerns about the industry were valid, and compounded by the new health concerns. And forced to stop working or look for other jobs early on in the pandemic, many realized they had other options.

“The staffing issue has actually a lot more to do with the conditions that the industry was in before covid and people not wanting to go back to that, knowing what they would be facing with a pandemic on top of it,” said Crystal Maher, 36, a restaurant worker in Austin, who’s become more active on the industry’s labor issues in the past year. “People are forgetting that restaurant workers have actually experienced decades of abuse and trauma. The pandemic is just the final straw.”

Tonya Breslow, the owner of Mis en Place, a restaurant staffing firm, said a huge number of restaurants she works with are dealing with shortages.

The firm recently surveyed 2,000 line cooks and back-of-the-house restaurant workers nationally and found just over a quarter, 26 percent, reported leaving the industry, while 41 percent of workers said they were still employed in the industry. That left about a third of respondents who had not gone back to work.

Of that group, most workers said they were not yet back, because they were either looking for the right opportunity, they had concerns about safety during the pandemic, or they did not plan to return to the industry.

A turbulent industry

The restaurant industry is famously volatile, home to strong personalities, tense workplaces, grinding hours and unpredictable scheduling. Issues like tip and wage theft, sexual harassment, and drug and alcohol abuse can be widespread, and there is often little in the way of formal job benefits such as health care, vacation time, sick pay or a livable minimum wage, though many workers do well in tips during flush times.

Turnover is a way of life; the average job tenure for hourly food service workers is less than two months, according to data compiled by Mis en Place.

This constant churn was affecting Jazz Salm’s life even before the pandemic.

The 37-year-old had worked for Carrabba’s Italian Grill, a Florida-headquartered chain, at different locations for more than 15 years, but said she had to find another job after one of the restaurants’ outposts, near Miami, burned down.

She got a job at a Chili’s in that area in early March of last year, but was furloughed when the pandemic shuttered the business after her first week.

It took her months to get approved for unemployment insurance in Florida, as the state’s system struggled to process the flood of applications in the early months of the crisis.

By the end of summer, Salm found a job at a Walmart, after moving back in with her mother in Sarasota. But shortly after starting work there, she registered a fever during the screening the store administered to workers before they clocked in, and was sent home to quarantine. The company required a two-week, quarantine, she said, even though she had tested negative days a few days before developing the fever.

Walmart pays employees if they’re sent home for failing a health screening, but Salm said she was unaware of the benefit, and thought she’d have to go two weeks without a paycheck.

She decided to quit the job and drive up the coast to go stay with a friend who had invited her to come live at her house in Upstate New York. She slept in her car along the way.

She said she tried to find a job at a restaurant but couldn’t. So she started taking care of her friend’s 81-year-old father-in-law, who had just returned from the hospital after receiving chemotherapy for throat cancer. The money takes care of her rent, groceries and some spending money.

She said she may return eventually to the food service industry in Florida, where restaurant owners have complained vociferously about the worker shortage, but it will take her time. She won’t be fully vaccinated until mid-June, for starters. And she wonders about getting trained and going into medical caregiving full time.

“I’m trying to trust the process and hope that this all works out and there’s not another spike or anything else,” she said. “The restaurant industry really doesn’t guarantee the money that I used to make, with this pandemic. Because if it flares up again, or God forbid something happens in the restaurant, you have to close it down, you’re out of work for weeks and there’s nothing you can do to make money. Other than find another job.”

Losing the city’s best

Allan Creasy, 39, had worked in restaurants and bars for more than two decades, most recently as a bartender at Celtic Crossing, an Irish bar in Memphis, where he was voted the city’s best bartender three times over the years by readers of the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, the Memphis Flyer.

Like others, Creasy said the pandemic proved to be the tipping point for him, exacerbating long-standing labor issues in the industry and drawing attention to how low his wages were: $2.13 an hour before tips — the minimum wage for tipped positions in Tennessee and at the federal level.

After three months back at the bar after the initial lockdown, Creasy decided to quit and pursue a career change.

“I didn’t come back to the same job I left previously,” he said. “It was very difficult to constantly have to police people about mask-wearing. It was very difficult to try to bartend and run out to the back parking lot to deliver to-go food, and to deal with Uber Eats drivers and the like, while making significantly less money than I’d been making previously.”

And the pay had gotten worse — with his income dropping from about $60,000 a year around 2011 to less than $40,000 before the pandemic, he said.

“I’ve seen the number of people who are passionate about the restaurant industry slowly ebb away over the last 20 years,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s because the server’s minimum wage hasn’t changed. There is this belief that servers and bartenders are interchangeable.”

Creasy, who has a bachelor’s degree in history, has been doing fundraising and social media work for a local political action committee since. He’s making about the same amount of money he did at the bar but doing something that feels closer to his heart with less risk.

“You had so many folks working in the industry because they loved it, but now so many folks found a job in a warehouse making $15 an hour, or making as much money driving for Uber Eats, all these different businesses,” he said. “It’s not that we’re on unemployment. We did our unemployment stint, and we found something else.”

Nathaniel Santiago, 20, who works at a McDonald’s in the Fort Lauderdale area in Florida, said he believes the industry’s low wages are playing a role.

He had to move back in with his parents last year after losing his job at a manufacturing facility, before finding work at the fast-food chain, where he said he’s making $11 an hour — just $1,760 per month for full-time work, with no health care. That’s about $4 an hour below what is estimated to be a living wage for a single person with no children in that area — the minimum amount calculated for a person to be able to meet basic standards of living.

He also believes unemployment insurance is playing a role in the shortage, saying he’s heard from some friends and family members who say they are happy getting by with support from the government in the meantime.

“We need to pay workers $15 an hour at the moment,” he said. “People want to talk about inflation or that if you pay everybody $15 an hour, everything is going to get more expensive, but it already is. Food, clothing, gasoline, rent — you name it.”

Peter DeQuattro, 36, a line cook in Memphis who recently left a job because it paid less than $15 an hour, said he thinks the pandemic has changed the paradigm for low-wage workers — giving people more confidence to demand better wages.

“There is a growing movement of people, including myself, that just flat out refuse to work for somebody that isn’t willing to pay a living wage,” he said.

Companies dangle bonuses, incentives, appetizers

There are signs that businesses are reacting to the shortage.

Companies that pay less than $15 an hour — the amount many liberal economists and labor advocates say should be a baseline to provide people with something closer to a living wage in many areas of the country — are increasingly dangling incentives, bonuses and pay raises in front of workers in the hopes of staffing up. Pay is increasing in the industry as well: The median wage for nonmanagement restaurant and bar workers rose 70 cents an hour, to $14.50, in the past three months — a significant 5.1 percent jump.

Costco, Chipotle and McDonald’s are among the publicly traded companies that have announced wage increases in recent weeks, and others, like Target, raised their wages in 2020 as the pandemic drew more attention to the plight of workers.

Local media outlets have been flooded with tales of the worker shortage, written mostly from the perspective of businesses, from Santa Fe to Connecticut. A brewery in Albuquerque is offering workers a free 64-ounce growler of beer after every shift; Applebees is offering free appetizers to people who apply to jobs, as it seeks to hire thousands of workers across the country.

Breslow, the owner of the staffing firm Mis en Place, knows restaurant owners who are offering bonuses as high as $3,000 to new hires, and others who are adding health insurance and 401(k) benefits to employee incentive packages.

“The country is scrambling to get that 33 percent,” Breslow said, referring to those workers who have not returned to the industry. “The leverage is unreal.”

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this story.