Jami Janes worked in restaurants for 30 years before COVID-19 struck the U.S. and even put in a few shifts over the last year when her former boss needed a hand.
But now that the end of the pandemic is in sight, Janes is considering whether she wants to go back to restaurant work.
“I realized, at 54, it’s a brutal lifestyle,” she said.
Restaurants are clamoring for workers as more people return to indoor dining, and Republicans have made the industry’s hiring woes Exhibit A in their argument that unemployment benefits keep people from taking jobs.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), for instance, complained on the Senate floor that the benefits are destroying businesses, pointing to the example of an eatery in Columbus.
“They literally closed because they can’t find workers,” Portman said last week. “Other restaurants all over the state of Ohio are going five days a week instead of six or seven days a week, or cutting a shift because they can’t find workers.”
Most states led by Republican governors have now opted out of the extra federal unemployment benefits Congress put in place to help people through the pandemic, including the extra $300 per week that made benefits more valuable than wages for some workers.
But the food service industry’s labor shortage complaints predate the pandemic. Even before Congress expanded benefits, the National Restaurant Association noted in a recent statement to HuffPost, “recruitment and retention of employees had been the industry’s top challenge for many years.”
It’s not hard to see why. The median pay of a restaurant worker in 2020 was $11.63 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which at 40 hours a week comes out to a little more than $24,000 per year. That’s less than half the overall median wage for American workers.
So it’s not a huge surprise that the average amount of time someone spends in a job is consistently lower in food service than any other industry, at about two years.
Part of the reason for the low pay in food service is that federal law allows restaurants to pay tipped workers less than the minimum wage ― as low as $2.13 per hour, compared with the federal minimum of $7.25. Employers are supposed to make up the difference if tips amount to less than the normal minimum wage, but they often don’t.
More than half of restaurant workers have recently considered ditching their occupation, according to a survey released this month by the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the group One Fair Wage, which opposes the tipped minimum wage. The survey was limited to people still working in restaurants, so it excluded the several million who hadn’t returned since last year. Of workers who considered quitting, 75% said low wages and tips were the reason.
On top of that, 87% of workers surveyed by One Fair Wage said tips were down in the last year, and 80% said they’d experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from customers in response to staff enforcing COVID-19 protocols, such as mask wearing.
In several cities, restaurant workers are walking off the job this week as part of a One Fair Wage protest against the tipped minimum wage.
“The industry has what I call a preexisting condition prior to the pandemic. It already was the lowest-paying industry in the U.S.,” Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage and director of the Berkeley Food Labor Research Center, said in an interview.
“What this pandemic did was it was like a lightbulb went off for so many workers,” Jayaraman said, noting that many laid-off food service employees were told they couldn’t qualify for regular unemployment benefits because their income had been too low.
The term “worker shortage” has no specific meaning when politicians use it. Anytime an employer complains that businesses can’t find enough workers, politicians can declare a shortage ― even though the employer would likely be able to find workers if they offered higher wages.
However, restaurants may indeed be suffering from an unusual lack of workers right now, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, which defines a labor shortage as businesses lacking staff even as they’re raising pay at an unsustainable rate. In the past three months, according to EPI’s analysis, wage growth surged 18% in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants.
“It seems clear that in April, customers were coming back to leisure and hospitality establishments faster than employers were able to staff up to serve them at the going wages that recently prevailed in this sector,” EPI’s Josh Bivens and Heidi Shierholz wrote this month.
But they said it’s unlikely unemployment benefits are causing the shortage in restaurants, as the leisure sector and restaurants in particular saw brisk hiring last month. A more likely culprit is the combination of some schools remaining closed and workers fearing the coronavirus.
Janes, who lives in Meadow Vista, California, said she has not been receiving unemployment benefits since March because of a problem with her claim, but she still doesn’t want to go back to waiting tables.
She’s looking for a data entry job that would allow her to work from home. One of her children has a compromised immune system and she worries about bringing the coronavirus home, even though she’s vaccinated. And her former employer has offered only a limited number of shifts.
She’s also just tired of the work.
“You’re on the firing line. Do you ask someone to put on a mask?” Janes said. “Everything’s a confrontation.”
She’s interviewing for jobs that don’t offer high pay, but at least the money would be consistent ― not dependent on people’s moods, and not at the front lines of the pandemic. The past year has given her a new perspective on the work.
“When you’re able to take a step back like that, you realize how vulnerable you are.”