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It’s no wonder there’s a shortage of food service workers; the job’s lousy | COMMENTARY

Patrons dine outside at All Day, a coffee shop and restaurant in Miami, April 6, 2021. Restaurant owners across the country are reporting a shortage in help, as rebounding business forces them to compete for a shrunken pool of applicants.
Patrons dine outside at All Day, a coffee shop and restaurant in Miami, April 6, 2021. Restaurant owners across the country are reporting a shortage in help, as rebounding business forces them to compete for a shrunken pool of applicants. (Alfonso Duran/The New York Times)

“You can call out if you’re dead.” — that’s how restaurant owners or managers often describe their sick leave policy, with a wink that says, I’m joking, but not really. I recently spoke to a former server and bartender who told me the only time her boss allowed her to leave work for health reasons was after she vomited on the kitchen floor. This is not only atrocious treatment of an employee, but also a health hazard. As a restaurant patron you have a selfish interest in that employee’s paid sick leave.

Earlier this month, Maryland food service and hospitality trade organizations asked the secretary of labor to end the pandemic-related waiver of requirements showing you’re looking for a job in order to receive employment benefits. Already, half of the country’s states have done so, and President Joe Biden is pushing the Labor Department to help the other half reimpose the requirement as well.

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That tactic will only lead to more no-shows, as people interview for jobs that don’t feel safe just so they can get the rubber stamp for the unemployment office. And what the trade groups are asking for is uncomfortably close to indentured servitude: If people reach the point of starvation, they will be forced to come back to the jobs that discarded them like used tissues at the beginning of the plague.

Many employers have raised wages, and there is no shortage of breathless headlines about incentives and benefits some have added, such as paying applicants just to come to a job interview. Raising industry wages above the poverty line is certainly important. Economists agree that even the much-debated $15 minimum wage would not actually constitute a living wage, but it sure beats the $2.13 that has been the federal tipped minimum wage since 1991.

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But even at $15 per hour, restaurant jobs are still largely backbreaking jobs with no future, little to no benefits and lousy hours. It’s no coincidence that fast food has the greatest labor shortage, closely followed by fast casual, which is your Five Guys and Chipotle. Those happen to be the establishments whose clientele is also the least likely to adhere to safety measures, and the most likely to get confrontational about it.

Ah, but “there’s flexibility built within the restaurant industry,” says Kristine Hillmer, head of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. Flexibility for the employer, sure — the freedom to schedule your employee every single night and every single weekend, or to cut a shift at short notice. In my experience, employees rarely have a say in this.

Employers and even industry lobbyists admit that employees may be hesitant to return to jobs that laid them off, some of them two or three times. They’re trying to assure potential hires that hard lockdowns are a thing of the past.

But I don’t think restaurant workers are primarily worried about new lockdowns. They know that we are slowly getting out of the weeds of this pandemic. For many of them, it’s the fact that employers have, once and for all, shown that they don’t care about their workers. Yes, some small restaurateurs cried as they laid off their staff, but many, especially large chains just treat you as collateral damage. This has always been apparent, in some ways. Foodservice work is rife with injuries both accidental and repetitive, and when they mount and become unbearable, seasoned workers are often discarded without a second thought. But the pandemic has brought a mass realization that no one cares about you as a human being. Restaurant owners’ public comments like, “now we just take what we can get” won’t help the new hires feel appreciated, either.

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So, what needs to change?

The pay rate needs to change. But just as importantly, the culture needs to change. Rooting out sexual harassment and physical assault should be the bare minimum for any workplace, but the industry is only just waking up to that idea.

Employers, instead of lobbying against unemployment benefits, lobby for conditions that enable better pay, such as raising the minimum wage for all and adding the gratuity by default. Create jobs and opportunities for the people who have wrecked their knees in service of your business. Employ them as buyers and hosts, teach them accounting, help them with tuition — come up with something. Guarantee your staff every other weekend off, or at least their kids’ birthdays. Help employees and prospective hires get vaccinated; being eligible still does not equal scoring an appointment. Provide good protective equipment for them.

And maybe just once, in a high-stakes situation, take your employees’ side over a customer’s. You’ll be amazed how far that gets you.

Michiko Kobayashi (michiko.kobayashi@gmail.com) works at a local grocery store in Baltimore and has 15 years of retail, food service and management experience.

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