The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Those $300 pandemic checks aren’t the only reason restaurant employees might not want to go back to work

Outside a restaurant in Huntington Park, Calif., on March 24. (Jessica Pons/Bloomberg)

Micheline Maynard is a journalist and author. Her books include “The End of Detroit: How the Big Three Lost Their Grip on the American Car Market.”

Right now, anyone willing to work in a restaurant in the United States could probably pick a city, style of food and price of the cuisine, and a job would be waiting. But upward of 1 million of those positions are going begging, leading to a bitter debate over the reasons.

Business owners point to the extra $300 a week in jobless benefits that are part of the American Rescue Plan for a covid-ravaged economy. The implication is that the benefit has allowed those who worked in restaurants before the pandemic and were thrown out of work to basically freeload on federal assistance even though businesses are reopening across the country.

Organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, members of Congress and at least 24 Republican-led states want the extra money ended, on the expectation that cutting off the lifeline will drive people back to work.

It’s logical to think the move could be effective. “Eating and drinking places are still 1.7 million jobs (or 14%) below pre-pandemic levels,” the National Restaurant Association said of the April numbers, with casual-dining and fine-dining establishments reporting the biggest shortfalls (about 55 percent, compared with 39 percent for quick-service).

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

But what if a substantial number of those not going back to restaurant work simply realized during the pandemic layoff that working in many restaurants … is kind of awful? And if they didn’t go into an entirely new line of work, what if during the past year they discovered that there are interesting new ways of staying in the food business without the exhausting, often demeaning restaurant grind?

People forget that restaurants were scrambling to find workers long before the pandemic. In 2015, a Chicago Tribune story asked, “Where have all the cooks gone?” as owner after owner bemoaned the scarcity of options.

In the year before the pandemic, industry analysts were wondering whether the country was flooded with an overabundance of restaurants, shrinking profit margins toward zero.

The abruptness with which restaurants closed last year amid stay-at-home orders, and the deaths of some workers due to covid-19 had a significant psychological impact, according to Eric Rivera, owner of the Seattle restaurant Addo.

In a May 6 Twitter thread, Rivera said restaurants essentially insulted their employees when they pared down to skeleton staffs and kept their places alive through delivery apps and to-go orders. “You proved you don’t need those employees right in front of their faces,” he said of restaurant owners, who “are now ramping up hiring and not realizing that people don’t want to be abandoned again.”

New Orleans chef Jason Goodenough sympathizes with the respondents to a recent union-affiliated survey, more than half of whom said they intended to quit their restaurant jobs — with nearly 80 percent of those planning to quit citing low wages as their reason for leaving.

Servers in many parts of the country receive tipped wages as low as $2.13 an hour under federal guidelines, on the expectation that gratuities will boost them at least to the $7.25 minimum wage. Some places pay more. But employees can’t count on patrons to be generous — or on bosses to assign them full shifts.

“I think people aren’t returning because restaurant work sucks, is underpaid or provides no upward mobility or benefits,” Goodenough tells me. “The pandemic has laid bare this reality, and people just don’t want to do it anymore. Ever.”

In January, Goodenough decided he’d had enough. And he was a star in the New Orleans restaurant world, known for his Southern dishes at Carrollton Market. Struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic, Goodenough said he snapped when a patron berated him for displaying Black Lives Matter signs in the restaurant window. He shut Carrollton Market down.

He says, “I know I never, ever, want to work in or own a restaurant again.”

Nor does he — or many fellow refugees from restaurant work — necessarily need to. Goodenough lately has cooked multi-course dinners for corporate clients and for guests in private homes, and he has entertained his Instagram fans with cooking lessons.

Even if former restaurant staff aren’t on his elite level, they may find themselves welcome in grocery-store cafes, gourmet shops with grab-and-go cuisine, and many places where, unlike many restaurants, the pay and hours may be steadier and even come with benefits.

In the Detroit area, where I live, the buzz lately has been about pop-ups — traveling food vendors offering everything from tacos and dumplings to pho and pastries. These mobile cooks, with colorful names such as Lucha Puerco, Basil Babe and Pizza Replicator, are hosted by distilleries, wine stores, coffee bars and even restaurant owners eager to piggyback on the social media popularity of pop-ups, which regularly sell out.

Attitudes are undeniably shifting, making this staffing crisis a wake-up call for restaurants. They no longer have a corner on feeding customers — or on the people who used to serve them.

Read more:

Corby Kummer, José Andrés, Rick Bayless and Russell Jackson: Indoor dining must return. Just not the way we knew it.

Megan McArdle: Beware of ‘expert’ consensus. The covid-19 lab leak theory shows why.

Robert J. Walker: I’d be a Republican if it weren’t for the Republicans. So might many other African Americans.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: My father’s words are being distorted by those who oppose D.C. statehood

Greg Sargent: A GOP senator’s angry shaming of Mitch McConnell demands more from Democrats