Restaurants face new COVID-19 challenge: Finding enough workers

An employee hands a customer order at the drive-thru of a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant in Peru, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. McDonald’s, in its largest acquisition in 20 years, is buying a decision-logic technology company to better personalize menus in its digital push. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s been a brutal year for restaurants, with the sector shedding almost 6 million jobs during the first six weeks of the pandemic alone. But with COVID-19 cases easing as the U.S. vaccine rollout continues and many states reopening, eateries are facing a new challenge: Filling open positions.

More than half of hospitality businesses said they will need to hire workers in the next six months, according to a Census poll this month. Yet almost 40% of restaurant companies said they’re having trouble finding servers, cooks and other workers. That compares with about 5% of finance and insurance businesses, where workers are more likely to be able to work remotely.

The labor shortage threatens to hamper restaurants just as many are reopening or expanding after more than a year of grappling with the business impact of COVID-19. The obstacles to hiring include ongoing worker concerns about exposure to the virus as well as restaurant employees with children who have been forced to oversee their remote schooling. Restaurants are responding by dangling hiring and retention bonuses and new benefits.

“Everybody is hiring at the same exact time”

“Every businesses got a couple of weeks of lead time saying, ‘OK, now you can reopen,’ following a year of closures and project delays,” said Alice Cheng, CEO of Culinary Agents, which runs a job site for restaurants. “Everybody is hiring at the same exact time. That’s causing supply and demand issues right off the board.”

Workers are looking at job postings, but not necessarily clicking or following through, she added.

Restaurant owners who spoke to CBS MoneyWatch expressed surprise at the number of job candidates who are setting up interviews but fail to show up. Laurence Edelman of Left Bank in New York City said that out of five scheduled interviews, only one candidate appeared for the appointment. He wants to hire three workers — a cook, sous chef and dishwasher — to give his current staff a break, since they’re working six days a week.

“It’s really tough right now,” Edelman said. “We put out a Craig’s List ad, which is what we normally did in the past. Usually the response rate is like at least 80% better than what we are getting today.”

In Salina, Kansas, Hickory Hut Barbecue co-owner Tim Blake is worried because he needs to staff up to keep up with increasing customer demand while giving his current employees a break. He’s paying far above the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and providing quarterly bonuses to his staff to keep them satisfied. But that only goes so far, he said.

“At some point, money doesn’t matter — they want time,” said Blake, noting that he’s been searching for new hires since February. “They are burned out.”

Like Edelman, Blake is having to cope with people who schedule interviews but don’t show up — he estimates that 9 of 10 job seekers are no-shows. His theory: Because people need to show state unemployment offices that they are looking for work, they schedule interviews and take screen shots to show jobless benefit administrators. But he suspects they aren’t turning up for the interviews because some might be deciding it is more appealing to claim the extra $300 a week in jobless aid that will continue through early September.

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