As businesses across the country grapple with labor shortages, I spoke with Grub Street’s Chris Crowley about how the post-pandemic economy is playing out in the restaurant world and why some workers don’t want to go back to it.
Ben: All across the country, companies have found themselves in a situation that was rare before the pandemic: They’re struggling to make jobs attractive enough for workers to take them. This dynamic is especially apparent in service industries, like restaurants and bars, which you cover over at Grub Street. The causes for the worker shortage are hotly debated. Among restaurateurs and workers you’ve spoken to, what has stood out to you in terms of why there’s this mismatch going on?
Chris: When you asked me to talk about this, I was reading Ed Zitron’s newsletter about why we’re all actually going back to the offices: Because bosses and companies want ownership over people’s time and feel entitled, as he puts it, “to capture their soul” and that — yeah, I kept the tab open — bosses “expect [employees] to dedicate their existence to” them, at least during work. This made me think of many of the things that business owners — and some employees, too! — have said with regard to unemployment benefits and how lazy workers don’t want to return. To me, anyway, it helped clarify the entitlement to people’s work that was a through-line in so many of those comments: Everyone pays into employment.
I know cooks who have left the city, who took jobs in other industries because they had no choice (either because they were undocumented or couldn’t support family on unemployment alone), or who are focusing on careers that they had been working in restaurants to support or which they finally decided to pursue. Even restaurant owners complaining about unemployment will, if you nudge, say they’ve had employees who left the city, in some cases gone back to their home countries.
At the same time, all of these places have been hiring. One beverage manager, Rafael García Febles said to me, “I would just add that the hiring market went from 0 to 100 in a matter of weeks,” and that imbalance will correct itself. Still, people have been talking about difficulty finding employees or why the industry is unsustainable for years.
I’ve also of course talked to people who have left the industry more out of choice, because of issues around compensation and benefits, quality of life, and their experiences in abusive work environments.
Ben: Conservatives have identified unemployment benefits as the culprit for the labor shortage, and a lot of red states have decided to cut them off sooner rather than later. But many economists and observers don’t think they are the sole or even prime factor here. Setting aside the problems with the restaurant industry for now — I’ll get to them in a minute — isn’t it easier to be choosy about where you want to work when you have some guaranteed money coming in? Do you get the sense that things will change drastically when those benefits run out? Or is the connection a tenuous one?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely, and those states are trying to take that leverage away from people. I’d point to some people I spoke with and briefly mentioned who you could say fall into this: They’re choosing to focus on the job they want, their artistic careers, and if they have to they’ll get part-time work in restaurants again. A friend of mine has said many problems in American workplaces could be mitigated by making health care public, because people no longer have to worry about losing it. Obviously, here you also have a lot of undocumented workers who haven’t gotten unemployment — there is the Excluded Workers Fund — and have had to find whatever work they can, which is why many ended doing delivery jobs for apps.
As for whether things will change drastically when the enhanced benefits run out — in my conversations, it’s not really unemployment that’s come up the most. I think this is more about how things shake out for people in terms of pursuing other work, if that’s what they’re doing, and the hiring market, as Rafael points out, correcting itself. I do believe, maybe hopefully, that we’re having a reckoning with our relationship to work and how unhealthy that relationship is. Fine-dining cooks are expected to be their jobs, to be devoted to work, and they’d pay you $10 or $11 an hour before the minimum wage hike here in New York.
Ben: Though it was and is possible for some people to make pretty good money in restaurant jobs, a sense of precariousness characterized the industry pre-pandemic, as you’ve emphasized: often tough working conditions, a dependence on tips, unpredictable schedules, not-infrequent frequent sexual harassment, and so on. Do you have any hope that workers having some leverage right now — even if it’s fleeting — will force any kind of systemic reform in this and other service industries?
Chris: No, not from the conversations I’m having with people. I think there is some leverage that’s resulting in higher wages, but I don’t think for reform. It really is, in part, built on people being paid too little and treated poorly, and others being okay with that. Harassment and abuse is endemic — stories of abuse, say in Mission Chinese Food or Babbo, aren’t so surprising to people who have worked in these places. Everyone I talk to has new stories to tell about shitty customers, about people who treat servers like servants.
It was such a long, difficult, and emotionally exhausting year — the last time I checked, more than half of the industry people I’ve spoken to know someone who died of COVID — and it burnt people out. Now we’re reopening, and you have owners saying they only have, say, half the staff they need, and meanwhile they’ve got outdoor dining setups that are three times as large as normal. I am sympathetic to the concerns of owners, too; many are small business owners who will lose a whole lot, or everything, if their business fails. But it’s unfortunate the way the pressure of reopening is being put on people working these jobs.
Someone much smarter may tell me I’m wrong, but I don’t believe you can fix most of the problems in any industry unless you fix bigger problems in the economy. An individual restaurateur can get rid of tipping and call for people to pay more for food, and we should, but not everyone has a lot more money to spend: Raising the minimum wage, doing something about the abysmally low federal tipped minimum wage, means a cook makes more money, but so does a potential customer, if we’re talking about more accessible places.
My feeling generally, I guess, is that the restaurant industry is still largely blue-collar, even if working in some places was made glamorous, and so much of the workforce is unprotected and/or ignored. I do hope there’s some shift in, I guess, focus on actors in the industry, but I feel like a lot of the public is either not paying attention or they haven’t seen the stories? I really don’t think it’s about individual operators, because they only employ so many people.