Help needed: the labor crisis shocks Californian restaurants

MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press

Sherry Villanueva’s Santa Barbara family of restaurants employed 350 people before the pandemic took hold and darkened dining rooms across California. Now, with the official reopening of the state economy, around 250 workers have returned to work.

Villanueva would hire 100 more if she could, but she can’t find people to take the posts.

“We are in the midst of a very serious labor shortage,” said Villanueva, owner and managing partner of Acme Hospitality, which operates eight restaurants in the popular seaside destination, although two remain closed. With sticks stretched out like a paper towel, employees “do two people ‘s work.”

California completely reopened its economy on June 15 and removed capacity limits at restaurants, retail stores and other businesses. People are eager to come back to sporting events and amusement parks and enjoy a restaurant meal.

But instead of full dining rooms, many restaurants are forced to reduce opening hours or leave tables open. Villanueva’s company offers cash bonuses to workers who recruit new employees.

The labor shortage is also affecting restaurants across the United States. The National Restaurant Association reported that the food and beverage industry cut 2.5 million jobs in 2020. Federal data shows nearly 1.4 million job openings in the restaurant industry. and the hotel industry in April.

At Served Global Dining in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, chef-owner Matthew Meyer said he needed a dozen or more people to fill positions at all levels, including cooks. and bartenders.

Plans for a raw seafood bar, take-out kits, and a chef’s table to serve special tasting menus are on hold as it can’t find enough workers.

Meanwhile, its labor costs have increased by a third as it has to offer more money to attract applicants. Even then, the last two interviews he had scheduled never showed up.

“We are having extreme difficulties,” he said.

The California Restaurant Association previously estimated that one-third of restaurants in the state would not survive the pandemic. For those who survived, the lack of jobs is a “crisis in its own right,” said Jot Condie, who heads the organization.

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom likes to say California’s economy is booming. Indeed, employment figures released on Friday showed the state created more than 100,000 jobs in May, the fourth consecutive month of gains after 2.7 million jobs disappeared in the first few months of the pandemic.

But in the state’s battered restaurant industry, the return to normalcy is being slowed down by the struggle to find sufficient numbers of cooks, bartenders, waiters, and kitchen staff. Since May 2020, restaurants and hotels have created 420,400 jobs – the most of any industry – but the industry remains around 450,000 jobs below its pre-pandemic level.

In Los Angeles, Caroline Styne, owner and wine director of the Lucca group, turned down dozens of customers because she didn’t have the staff to serve them, leaving seats empty.

“If you can’t fill your seats… several times a night, the restaurant’s financial structure isn’t working,” Styne said.

“Hiring is a nightmare,” she added. “I’ve never been in a situation like this.”

The industry is notoriously volatile, and restaurant workers can be in transit – from students moving in and out of shifts if time permits, aspiring actors and musicians looking to supplement their income, kitchen workers leaving for work. higher wages elsewhere. Hours can be long, benefits scarce, and wages low, sometimes dependent on tips.

Styne, Villanueva and other industry experts see a set of factors conspiring to create the scarcity of job seekers.

Among them: California’s population fell by 182,000 last year as the pandemic ravaged the economy, scattering workers across the country as many businesses closed. Some workers are reluctant to return, either out of lingering fear of the virus or because of frayed nerves after struggling with intermittent shutdowns, home isolation and changing health regulations.

Extended federal unemployment benefits have provided a cushion for staying home – around 2 million people are still receiving checks. In other cases, there is a problem with childcare with closed schools or recess for the summer. And after a long hiatus from work to think about the future, others have embarked on a new career.

For some workers who did not return, “the trauma and uncertainty of the past year and a half was just too much,” Villanueva said.

Meyer, the Nevada chief, blames extended government benefits for the lack of job seekers. “As long as they keep giving free money, that’s where people are at,” he lamented.

Restaurants and hotels have been the “zero point” of the labor shortage, but other sectors are struggling to fill jobs, including non-union construction and home health care, said Michael Bernick, former director of the California Employment Development Department and lawyer. with the Duane Morris law firm.

For struggling restaurants, a turning point may not come until late summer, when improved federal benefits end and schools reopen.

Even so, “there can still be a shortage and then wages will rise enough to attract workers or hospitality locations will find they need to change their delivery patterns,” Bernick said in an email.

On Saturday, Alec Nedelman was enjoying an early Father’s Day celebration with his family at one of Styne’s AOC restaurants in Los Angeles. The lawyer said he had just started returning to restaurants since the dining rooms reopened and was also anxious to have them available for business meetings.

“It’s still a mixed feeling. You’re still a little cautious and worried, ”Nedelman said. But “I can’t wait to be able to be social again. “

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