Here's why restaurant workers aren't returning to the industry

Workers are hoping for better wages, paid time off, benefits
Posted at 3:29 PM, May 19, 2021

CLEVELAND — We see the “Now Hiring” signs tacked onto so many restaurant windows and hear the pleas from owners saying they’re desperate for workers.

So what exactly is keeping people from taking these jobs?

Rosa Kovacevich has worked in the restaurant industry for the last decade — a hostess, a server, sometimes juggling another full-time job at the same time.

“I love working in a restaurant, and I love working with people; there is just an energy about working in a restaurant with your little restaurant family,” Rosa said.

But what Rosa — and thousands of other restaurant workers in Ohio are struggling with right now — is the balance between safely being back at work and finding ways to make ends meet.

“I think this pandemic is an opportunity for restaurant workers and owners to look at the industry and assess the way workers have been treated so poorly in the past,” Rosa said.

She’s talking about, in many instances: the lack of healthcare benefits, paid time off, low wages, and difficulty finding childcare with unpredictable schedules.

Michael Shields is a researcher at Policy Matters Ohio.

He says the industry has to look at paying more and offering incentives to be competitive.

“When employers say, ‘I can’t find all of the workers I need to hire..’ the rest of the statement is really — ‘at the wage I want to pay,’” Shields said.

He added that in 2019, data showed restaurant workers were paid about $9.59 at the median.

“That’s 93% of the poverty level for a family of three,” Shields explained.

But Ohio Restaurant Association president John Barker says it’s much more complicated than boosting pay.

“Many of these people have lost money for 14 consecutive months, so this notion they’re going to double wages, it’s just not realistic. They don’t have the money,” Barker said.

Barker said restaurant owners operate on razor-thin margins — and raising wages may raise the prices consumers pay.

“Getting that balance right between what we pay, how we pay it, make sure it is market-sensitive and competitive and not putting yourself in a situation where your menu prices can’t cover that,” Barker said.

The struggle to hire is something John Lane knows all too well.

He’s the co-owner of 17 Winking Lizard locations all over Northeast Ohio — desperately looking to fill 200 open positions as soon as tomorrow.

“I need about 10 managers, I need cooks, servers, bartenders, dishwashers, you name it, we need it,” Barker said. “A good server is making $25 to $40 an hour, so it’s nothing to sneeze at.”

Lane, who’s been in the restaurant biz for 33 years, says he believes it’s a combination of factors keeping them from finding workers — including childcare issues and the additional unemployment benefits people have received.

“Capitalism is a great thing, but you can’t compete against the government, right? So we’ve gotta figure that one out,” he said.

With all that said, the Ohio Restaurant Association is anticipating a slow and long recovery.

“We think it’ll take deep into 2022, maybe 2023 for those who have been down for 14 months to get back to what they might call even,” Barker said.

Barker and Lane both agreed that easing COVID-19 restrictions will go a long way in earning back confidence for workers to come back safely and for customers to dine in again.

But for Rosa and her coworkers, the hope is in that time — they see some change.

“I hope that the normal we return to is not the normal we came from,” Rosa said.

She added that she has former restaurant colleagues who have since taken jobs in banks or IT — similar wages and better working conditions and stability.

At the end of the day, everyone we spoke to agreed — the restaurant industry will have to evolve.

Now what that looks like exactly — whether it is higher wages or paid time off, they’re still trying to figure out.

Homa Bash at WEWS first reported this story.