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Dear Restaurateurs, unemployment isn’t the problem. Here’s what is.

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After receiving up to 1,700 survey responses from workers across the U.S., it’s clear that additional unemployment benefits are not the primary cause of the labor shortage in the restaurant industry — here’s what is.

It’s no surprise that now, facing a national labor shortage in the restaurant industry, people are content to blame unemployment. Ever since the CARES Act introduced a $600 unemployment booster, we’ve heard the rhetoric that workers won’t return if unemployment is too generous. Even now, this idea is leading 21 states to prematurely withdraw from federal unemployment programs, including the current $300 a week booster. The truth is, it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that. In a recent survey with up to 1,700 responses, workers across the nation told us how they feel about returning to work and what’s keeping them from coming back.

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In truth, workers are returning to work. It’s just happening at a slower pace than restaurant job creation, but this is a growing pain of millions of restaurants reopening at the same moment. Of those workers who responded to our survey, 63% said they work a full schedule of 30-40 hours a week, 19% work 20-30 hours, and only 17% work less than 20 hours per week. The survey also shows that about two-thirds of workers actively check Poached to see who is hiring. 45% of those workers apply for jobs, while 31% said they’re just looking for now. The data suggests that something more than unemployment is causing a competitive hiring market.

“Last year was so difficult. The uncertainty of everything was the worst part. Will I get unemployment? How long will they keep me on unemployment? Can I pay my rent? Should I go back? How busy will it be? Will I make enough?” one anonymous worker wrote in. “Working as a tipped employee, things are always a little uncertain, but last year tested my resilience. I hope our industry will be able to recover its losses and move forward.”

When we asked workers what’s stopping them from looking for a new job — 24% said uncertainty about future restrictions on indoor dining, and 26% are worried about getting themselves or their loved ones sick — whether they’re vaccinated or not. Through the survey results and the written answers we received, it’s apparent that workers want to get back to work but still have genuine concerns about financial stability and safety.
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“I like that my current job has been adhering to safety protocols and is waiting for everyone to get vaccinated before opening for table service,” one worker responded. “I’m afraid if I try to work elsewhere, they won’t be as concerned and will require me to take risks.” Many workers expressed that a lack of trust in restaurants and patrons adhering to safety measures stops them from looking for a new job. “I question the actions of many patrons. Where and who they have been with and their failure to comply with simple mandates” wrote another worker.

Counterintuitively, this information should be encouraging to employers. It means that while we’re experiencing a highly competitive hiring market — it’s not impossible to find quality employees. Workers need to feel safe and have job security before they return to the restaurant industry. As more people become vaccinated over the next few months, some of this tension will ease naturally. Still, employers can use this information to their advantage now to bring in applications.

When posting a job, emphasize the steps your company has taken during the pandemic to create a safe work environment. Include details about employee benefits or sick leave options. Talk about company culture and how you’re actively supporting the success of employees during this time. Now, more than ever, employers need to put as much effort into their job ads as they do trying to convince customers to dine at their establishment.

After the last year, and in response to the economic hardship restaurants across the nation continue to face — this is a great time to reconsider your business model and how your restaurant can be profitable for both yourself and those you employ. One major conversation taking place in our industry is how low wages, especially during the pandemic, have impacted the number of workers coming into the industry. It might be time to look into ways your business can move costs to raise wages, offer benefits, or increase hiring budgets. Whether that’s smaller menus to cut down on food costs, or switching to a counter service model to cut down on labor needs. The Biden Administration is pushing to increase the federal minimum wage to $15, so reconsidering your business model now, may save your business down the line.

Things in the restaurant industry seem to be looking up, and we’ll all get past this labor shortage — hopefully as a better and more robust industry. In order to get there, employers need to take into consideration the concerns that employees have as we make our way through the end of this pandemic and into a brighter future.

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Ashley Lange

Ashley Lange likes to cook, loves to bake and is always day-dreaming of her next meal. Ashley has spent the last 10 years in various roles within the food industry and is currently a server in Portland, Oregon.

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