Just a few years ago, snazzy restaurant perks included a shift drink at the evening’s end and maybe a crack at the rib-eye declared “definitely not medium-rare” by a diner. No retirement benefits, health plans or team-building retreats.
Sandy Cheek has worked as a server and trainer for Crabby Bill’s in Pinellas County, Fla., for more than 30 years. She’s seen customers grow more impatient during the pandemic, and dozens of colleagues quit, leaving the staff chronically shorthanded. She’s been recruited by other restaurateurs, but she’s staying put because of higher pay and new benefits like life and health insurance. There are also sweet little pick-me-ups, like when the boss hired the Krazy Ice Cream truck to swing by.
“Perks like that make us feel like they appreciate us, that they are giving back to us,” she said. Her free salted caramel swirl, which she said was delicious, was hardly enough to cement her loyalty. But it has strengthened this feeling that the owners are going the extra mile. “I’m going to keep going,” she said.
While there has always been high turnover in the industry, restaurants in particular have been ravaged by some of the largest numbers of employees quitting in the Great Resignation sweeping the labor force in recent months.
Workers are stepping away from the industry for good reasons, said Zulma Lowery, 44, a chef and single parent in the Bronx. She said the pandemic exposed how precarious hospitality work has always been.
Working in kitchens at Interboro Spirits and Ales in Brooklyn and a Black-owned beer bar in Harlem called Harlem Hops, Lowery has seen the unusual addition of paid sick leave and paid vacation, but it’s not enough for her. The owners’ frenzy to find ways to survive each coronavirus wave left her work schedule in flux and hours slashed at the last minute with little predictability as well as diminished tips. She quit.
“Culture in the industry has changed, is still changing, and I think it’s not getting any better,” Lowery said. These days, with her house filled with balloons, she’s trying to make a go of catering and hosting birthday parties and showers. “I’ve got a gender reveal at 3 p.m. today.”
In 2021, restaurant jobs advertised on ZipRecruiter only received about 18 applicants on average, down from 61 back in 2019, said ZipRecruiter chief economist Julia Pollak. Now, restaurant manager and cook job ads get around 40 percent fewer applications than the industry-wide average, she said. With restaurant employers competing for far fewer applicants, new enticements have become common, she added.
In response, 84 percent of restaurants reported raising wages, according to the National Restaurant Association, with hospitality industry workers now earning an average of $19.57 per hour, a 13 percent increase from a year ago, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, restaurant workers are restive, switching jobs, leaving the industry, and demanding compensation and perks that would have been inconceivable two years ago.
Sweetgreen now offers health, dental and vision benefits, even for part-time employees, as well as five months paid parental leave. Gusto 54 Restaurant Group advertises health insurance and wellness benefits. Fanny’s Restaurant in Los Angeles has disability and life insurance, pet insurance and identity theft protection for employees.
Some Chick-fil-A operators are now offering average wages of $19 per hour, said spokeswoman Jackie Jags, in many cases a jump from around $15 an hour before the pandemic. Some have added other perks. Justin Lindsey, a store owner in Kendall, Fla., has started offering three-day workweeks to help employees with work-life balance. Over the holidays, an owner in Robinson, Pa., gifted employees with Steelers tickets, a month of rent or mortgage payments, big-screen televisions and even a new car.
Lisa Dribben, who owns six McDonald’s restaurants in the Dallas suburbs, has hired and lost hundreds of workers over the past two years. During the holidays, she gave her hourly managers jackets and other McDonald’s branded clothing as well as bonuses. In addition to employee meals, her workers have gotten $20 each week to spend on food to take home to their families during the pandemic. Workers who get sick with covid-19 get a bag of groceries delivered to their homes. She now provides reviews and raises every six months.
Yet there have been times she doesn’t have enough people, so she’ll close the lobby, put up a sign that says, “we will reopen shortly,” and focus on drive-through only.
Many restaurants are adding benefits not traditionally offered in the industry. According to a recent survey of 1,200 restaurants by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, nearly 40 percent have added paid sick leave for the first time, and more than 20 percent have added paid vacation during the pandemic.
The Big Quit has spurred companies like Brinker International, which owns Chili’s and Maggiano’s, to execute “a full-court press to hire, train and retain our talent,” said Rick Badgley, an executive vice president for the restaurant group.
This means giving out raises and retention bonuses. But they are also experimenting with a program in one region to offer prepaid child care to employees for a $10-per-day co-pay, while expanding another program to help workers earn high school equivalency degrees and associate degrees, even if they are part-time employees.
Benefits more commonly seen in professional jobs, such as signing bonuses, referral bonuses and retention bonuses for employees who stay are also becoming more common at restaurants. Before the pandemic, only 2 percent of industry jobs were advertised with a signing bonus. Now, it’s 12 percent, said Pollak of ZipRecruiter.
While some incentives are about on-the-job perks, others reward applications. Many quick-service chains are offering $50 to interview, said Jean Chick, restaurant and food service leader for consulting firm Deloitte, and restaurants like Applebee’s incentivize prospective applicants to come in with the promise of free appetizers.
Employee dissatisfaction can be seen in fast-food chains as well as white-tablecloth restaurants, said Anne McBride, vice president of programs for the James Beard Foundation. The nonprofit culinary organization surveyed its network of chefs and restaurant owners, discovering that signing bonuses and higher salaries alone won’t fix the problems.
McBride said workers expressed dissatisfaction with the industry because of low wages and lack of benefits and retirement planning. But they also spoke of the industry’s lag in skills training and clear professional progression, as well as grueling work schedules of nights, weekends and holidays, and stressful environments with increasingly testy customers.
Industry leaders are reflecting on how to “professionalize” the work, moving it from a job to a career. Some of this, McBride said, includes a focus on training and opportunities for advancement, but also on benefits like health insurance and 401(k)s.
“Instead of a free shift drink, now it’s ‘let’s do yoga or go running together in the morning,’” she said. “It speaks to a changing generation of employees.”
Sometimes added inducements do little. Nearing the end of a white-knuckle New Year’s Day shift earlier this month at a Washington, D.C., burger bar, even the owner’s promise of an extra $100 if he stayed through the shift didn’t sway Tyler Michel, 28. Taking off his apron and throwing it in the kitchen, he quit. He’s looking for retail work and thinking about going back to school for creative writing. Most of his resume is restaurant jobs, but he says he feels done with it.
“I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of protection. It’s pretty hazardous, and there’s the long-term wear and tear on your body. My last couple of doubles I had to spend the whole next day in bed. I’m too young to be feeling that way,” he said.