No, Restaurant Employees Aren't Lazy Jerks Who Don't Want To Work
The restaurants and bars of Los Angeles spent 15 long, anxious pandemic months waiting until they could fully reopen. When that day finally arrived, it brought a new set of challenges — most notably, hiring and staffing.
Since June 15, when capacity limits and other social distancing requirements have mostly disappeared, restaurants have been struggling to staff up and meet the surge in demand. Why the sudden scramble to fill these positions? Despite certain pundits' claims, there isn't a single dominant cause. There are a lot of reasons.
Why Is Hiring So Hard?
While it's not true that every bar or restaurant is having trouble finding workers, the hospitality industry as a whole is facing a labor shortage.
A National Restaurant Association report found that 62% of fine dining operators and 54% of both family dining and casual dining operators are operating with staffing levels that are more than 20% below normal. The restaurant industry as a whole is still 1.3 million jobs below what it was before the pandemic.
What's going on?
Restaurant work is physically exhausting. You're on your feet most of the time. Wages are low. Hours are long. Many food service jobs don't come with employer-sponsored healthcare, paid sick days or paid vacations. If you're a server, you have to cater to rude and demanding customers. If you're in the kitchen, you're working in close proximity to other people, increasing your risk of catching COVID-19 (and other transmissible diseases). Employers don't always enforce safety measures. Wage theft and harassment are rampant in the hospitality industry. During the pandemic, servers have been screamed at and attacked by patrons who are angry about mask mandates or long wait times.
Is it any wonder many people who were furloughed or chose to leave restaurant jobs aren't itching to come back? For many people, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which lasts until September 23, has been a lifeline. For some, it has provided them a cushion while they look for other work or consider what they want to do next.
Michelle Kang, a floor manager at Bulgogi Hut in Koreatown says that during the past 15 months, many restaurant workers have found jobs in other industries.
"Maybe people are realizing that kind of job, they don't want to do it anymore. Maybe they want to work in an environment that is more stable and has benefits," Kang says.
Christopher Des Vigne still works as a server at Mendocino Farms in Century City but he has seen many of his colleagues leave their jobs — and leave the hospitality industry altogether — in the past 15 months. He thinks the instability of the past year has driven his colleagues to find more consistent, less dangerous work.
Stella Shin works at the Koreatown outpost of MDK Noodles, which was founded by her father and uncle, and also has a location in Orange County. Since 90% of MDK's customers speak Korean, the restaurants face the additional challenge of finding bilingual servers.
"Right now we're just not getting any calls at all. We’re fighting and struggling to get new staff and to even hold on to staff," Shin says.
Irene Perales, a floor manager and server at Love Sushi, says the Moorpark restaurant is facing a similar challenge.
"We've posted ads on Indeed, on Facebook, at the local community colleges, but it just seems like nobody is looking for a job," Perales says.
The high demand for workers has created a competition among restaurants who are desperate to hire employees. Both Kang and Shin say they have heard about restaurants offering hefty on-boarding bonuses and raising pay to $18 to $21 per hour.
"It's super cutthroat. We have staff members that quit recently because other Korean BBQ places are paying more," Shin says.
To keep MDK Noodles humming, Shin says many of her family members, including her older relatives, have come back to work at both locations.
Long Hours, Longer Days
Before the pandemic, Bulgogi Hut had around 80 staffers (including both front and back of house). Now, it has just over 60. The restaurant has 50 tables and is trying to operate at 100% capacity but Kang says they often need to close sections because they don't have enough employees.
"We are not able to be fully open because we don't have enough bussers, dishwashers or even just general staff to use the full amount of dining space," Kang says.
Understaffing has meant that the remaining employees at many restaurants are often expected to work longer hours and more days each week.
Tabitha Recik, a photographer who also works as a bartender at The Front Yard in Studio City, says the place is packed, even on weekdays, a rare occurrence in pre-pandemic times.
"Last Monday, I was bartending by myself and I probably made over 300 craft cocktails for six servers," Recik says.
Often, she and her co-workers work six days a week at shifts that last longer than 12 hours. The long hours, during which she is on her feet the entire time, are physically and emotionally draining.
"I've been scheduled eight straight days with no day off and have told managers I can't do this. My social and mental meter will run out. I told them, ''I'm going to have to take one day off,'" Recik says. When she did that, she was given a single day off in the middle of her work week.
Perales, who is six months pregnant, is currently working 10-hour shifts, five or six days a week. Love Sushi is operating with a skeleton crew of three servers, including Perales. On top of her managerial duties, she has had to take on the role of a server as well.
"Dealing with both the customers and the servers, it's super overwhelming," Perales says.
Not All Spots Are Struggling
Not all restaurants are desperate to hire. Al & Bea's, one of the most famous Mexican restaurants in Boyle Heights, has always survived on takeout, so adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions wasn't a problem. In fact, starting in April 2020, business actually went up. Owner Albert Carreon retained his entire staff of nine people throughout the pandemic.
"When June 15 hit, business actually slowed down because so many places reopened that people had more options. There's probably places they liked that they hadn't been to in a year," Carreon says.
Koreatown bar Potions & Poisons has also seen a dip in sales as more businesses have reopened, according to bartender Joseph Kim.
"Once everything fully reopened, like clubs and lounges, we actually saw a decrease in sales and the number of customers," Kim says.
This means Potions & Poisons is overstaffed and since June 15, many bartenders and servers have had their hours reduced.
"We dealt with being understaffed, but just not at the same time as most other restaurants," Kim says.
After more than a year of social isolation, physical distancing and delayed plans, people are itching to get out and have fun. While bars and restaurants are struggling to survive in the "new normal," most customers haven't reset their expectations.
While employees struggle to keep up with demand, customers who don't see (or don't care about) staffing shortages, often expect service to be just as swift as it was in pre-pandemic times.
Potions & Poisons hit their peak business this past spring, before nightlife fully reopened without restrictions.
"When we were really busy and had long wait times, we would get a lot of customer complaints about waiting for food and drink times," Kim says.
Perales says she hears daily complaints from Love Sushi's customers about long wait times for tables and food not being prepared fast enough. She says she and her fellow employees can't always keep up.
"It has to do with not only understaffing, but 90% of our servers being new and never having served before this job," Perales says.
Des Vigne, of Mendocino Farms, also mentioned restaurant workers' safety concerns, especially around masking and the rapidly spreading Delta variant. He said as soon as the state dropped the mask mandate for vaccinated individuals, he noticed a significant drop in mask-wearing.
"I feel like everyone should still be wearing masks until more people are vaccinated... or just to be cautious and safe for other people's health," Des Vigne says.
He mentioned that it is nearly impossible to verify customers' vaccination status and he thinks it's unfair that the onus of mask enforcement is placed on employees who are already over-worked.
"The entire industry is struggling and short on everything," Recik says.
As restaurants and bars try to return to normal staffing levels, the best thing patrons can do is relax. Be patient, be kind and don't expect your dining experience to look exactly the way it did in the pre-pandemic era.